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SCIENCE HERO:
SUBRAHMANYAN CHANDRASEKHAR
by Luis Quezada

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Photo: Astronomy Picture of the Day (http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap950901.html)

Have you ever asked yourself what a black hole is? In the past, there was a very young and intelligent man named Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who didn't ask himself this question because he discovered them. Now, scientists and astrophysicists explain black holes as a hypothetical object in space, perhaps the invisible remains of a collapsed star with intense gravitation from which light and matter can not escape.

Subrahmanyan was born on October 19, 1910, in Lahore, India, which now is part of Pakistan. He demonstrated his first interest in education when he was five years old at a Hindu festival. Chandra was sitting at the side of his father when he wrote three Tamil letters in the sand, three letters he had never studied. When it was time for Chandra to go to school, his family wouldn’t send him to a public one because their resources were too small. On the other hand, the private schools were considered for British kids only and he was a Hindu. For his reason, he had special education from his parents at home and at different times of the day. For example, in the morning his father would teach him English and math before leaving for work. In the afternoon, his mother would teach him Tamil (Hindu language) and supervise his language for most of the day. This process continued for most of his infancy until it was time for him to go to high school. He was a very intelligent person. At the age of fifteen, Chandra started going to college. Even though he had to read a lot, he would read even more than he had to for his science classes and this was how he became so interested in white dwarfs.

In the year 1930, Chandra was called into the principal’s office. At that moment, he was told that he had been awarded a scholarship from the Indian government to go study in England. This was a very big deal to him, but there were some problems that he had to deal with. One of these problems was his mother. She was ill at that time and wouldn’t approve his leaving. She was not the only one, but also his father and relatives would not approve this idea. He did everything he could to get his family to agree with him, and on July 22, 1930, Chandrasekhar left on a boat headed to England. Friends, family, and relatives were there to say goodbye. When he was on the ship on his way to England, he didn’t think much about what his life was going to be like when he got there. Instead, he began studying his own ideas. He was nineteen years of age when he started thinking that big stars of advanced age would not just become white dwarfs. Based on Einstein’s theory, Chandrasekhar got to the conclusion that stars with the mass three times greater than that of our sun, or to be more exact 1.44 times that of our sun, would implode: “The white dwarf theory was right”(Yount, 1998, p.4). This was one of the most important discoveries of the century, which eventually led to neutron stars, and then to black holes. Due to some disagreements, Chandra decided not to work in India any more, and it also had something to do with his marriage: “He returned there in 1936 only long enough to see his family and marry Lalitha Doraiswamy, a young woman who he had first met in his physics classes at Presidency College” (Yount, 1998, p.4)

Chandra had a very important background. Most of his ancestors had a special talent, and we can say that there is where he got most of his intelligence. His background also included warriors, traders, and even menial workers. Chandra’s grandfather Romanathan Chandrasekhar was a very distinguished math, English literature, and physics teacher. These subjects did not include the extracurricular activities he used to do back then. His grandfather was not the only intelligent person in his family; his uncle was a very important person too. C. U. Roman (Chandrasekhar’s uncle) won the 1930’s Nobel Prize in physics. Finally, there was a third important person in his family. Chandra’s father, C. S. Ayyar, was a musicologist who knew how to play the violin and who wrote some music books and even fiction books. He had a very big family. In total, they were nine brothers and sisters, three brothers of which he was the first, and six sisters.

There were many accomplishments in Chandra’s life. One of them, and maybe the most important, was his Nobel Prize. At this time, instead of being excited, the excessive number of calls he received to be congratulated embarrassed him. These calls were from all over the world. The medal had some special words that said: “Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes which means: inventions enhance life which is beautiful through art” (Internet: McGill, February 09, 2001, http//kids.msfc.nasa.gov/Pioneers/chandrasekhar.asp).

Along his way, Chandra also wrote some books, two of them were An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure, and Astrophysical Journal. His first book was written and published in 1939. In his first book, he explained some of his theories and summarized what he found in different debates. Another book he wrote in the year of 1943 was called Principles of Stellar Dynamics. Chandrasekhar, accompanied by his wife, had lived for many years in the United States illegally. But, due to an act called Immigration and Naturalization Act, Chandra and his wife were able to become citizens in October 1953. They took some courses to learn the American Constitution and part of the American history to become citizens. Due to their citizenship, in of 1960 Chandrasekhar and Lalitha were part of John F. Kennedy’s campaign for President. Chandra’s fame continued to grow when in 1964, he moved to Chicago’s University. He had been working very hard in order to get to the top. For example in of 1930, he got his B.A. and in 1933 he received his Ph. D. at Cambridge University. All of these accomplishments were a very big deal for him because he was accomplishing his goals. In 1964 Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar started teaching as a professor until his death at the same university. Chandra’s death occurred in Chicago on August 21, 1995, at the age of 84, due to a heart failure.

Chandrasekhar played a very important role in science history. He would always be remembered, as well as his discoveries.


Written by Luis Quezada
Photos courtesy of oscar sandoval
Images created by N.A.S.A.
Last changed on: 8/29/2011

Science World: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar a brief biography of the author of The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar Nobel Prize winner, 1983

 

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