The Luminous Ones: S. Chandrasekhar, Astrophysicist

Astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in 1981. Photo: American Institute of Physics.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (better known as Chandra to his friends) was one of the foremost astrophysicists of the 20th century. He was one of the first scientists to couple the study of physics with the study of astronomy. In doing so, Chandra proved that there was an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf. This limit, known as the Chandra limit, showed that stars 1.4 times more massive than the Sun would explode into supernovas, and then form black holes as they died. Remarkably, this stunning discovery was made when Chandra was was only 20 years old, on board a ship from Bombay to Cambridge University under a three-year research scholarship.

Over a long, prolific career, Chandra also developed theories on star atmospheres, black holes, the illumination of the sunlit sky, star structures and star mass, mostly at the University of Chicago where he the Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics from 1937 to his death in 1995.

In 1983 Chandra was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the physical processes involved in the structure and evolution of stars. A recipient of many other distinguished scientific awards, Chandra was also a man of high culture, and an avid admirer of the arts. This aspect of him shows up clearly in his book Truth and Beauty (University of Chicago Press 1987) which includes his 1975 Ryerson Lecture “Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven” in which he explored and compared the motivations and feelings involved in the creation of science and art.

S. Chandrasekhar as a young man at the University of Chicago.
Receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983.

Notable Quotes of Subrahmanyam Chandrashekhar

On the Appreciation of Beauty

Beauty is that to what the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound.


On the quest for beauty in science

One may ask the question as to the extent to which the quest for beauty is an aim in the pursuit of science. . . . It is, indeed, an incredible fact that what the human mind, at its deepest and most profound, perceives as beautiful finds its realization in external nature. What is intelligible is also beautiful.


On the Nature of Beautiful Discoveries

In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, discovered by the New Zealand mathematician Roy Kerr, provides the absolute exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This “shuddering before the beautiful,” this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound level.


On the Power of Scientific Imagination

Macroscopic objects, as we see them all around us, are governed by a variety of forces, derived from a variety of approximations to a variety of physical theories. In contrast, the only elements in the construction of black holes are our basic concepts of space and time. They are, thus, almost by definition, the most perfect macroscopic objects there are in the universe.


On the Connection between the Arts and Sciences

Indeed, I would feel that an appreciation of the arts in a conscious, disciplined way might help one to do science better.

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