Neither ridicule nor praise dims the vision of '83 Nobel physicist
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was not particularly surprised to be named a 1983 Nobel laureate in physics. Nor was he all that pleased with the fuss. On the overcast October morning when the Swedish Academy announced its choices, Dr. Chandrasekhar deviated little from his usual routine. There would be no press conference, no interviews. Instead, donning a dark suit, dark tie, and white shirt, he set out for his nearby office at the University of Chicago as he has done each working day for the last 47 years.Skip to next paragraph
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If nothing else, Chandrasekhar wants to get his work done. When he recently finished a landmark eight-year study of collapsed stars known as ''black holes, '' the 73-year-old astrophysicist was twice the age of almost everyone else in the field. While his contemporaries enjoy the accolades commonly bestowed on elder statesmen, Chandrasekhar relentlessly continues to pursue mathematical order in the universe.
But the Nobel Prize has muddled things up a bit. Since its announcement, there have been hundreds of telegrams and letters begging to be answered, dozens of interview requests, not to mention the looming task of writing his Nobel lecture for the Dec. 10 award ceremony in Stockholm.
Perhaps all the attention would be less vexing if the award were not honoring him primarily for an idea he first pondered in 1930 - while on a long steamship trip from Bombay to England.
The astronomical wisdom of the day had it that all stars would eventually collapse under the force of their own gravity to become white dwarfs - dense, faint, and very hot remnants. But by employing an idea known as relativistic degeneracy, Chandrasekhar thought about what might happen to a star's electrons when they become compressed enough to move at the speed of light. He decided that only stars below a certain mass would condense into stable white dwarfs. Anything larger, and the force of collapse would cause the star to shrink into something far smaller and denser than the imagination of any astronomer then could grasp: black holes.
The existence of black holes has since been confirmed. Chandrasekhar was hailed in physics textbooks, his stellar-mass threshold dubbed the ''Chandrasekhar limit.''
But the initial reception of this was less congratulatory. Immediately after presenting his thoughts at a 1935 dinner of London's Royal Astronomical Society, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, a preeminent astronomer, rose and proceeded to tear to shreds the argument of a stunned Chandrasekhar. Sir Arthur could not argue with Chandrasekhar's calculations or mathematical logic, yet he still discounted the idea as a reductio ad absurdum, saying, ''I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.''
Understandably, the incident is engraved in Chandrasekhar's memory. ''He told a lot of jokes and made me a laughingstock,'' he recalls somewhat sadly. Although the two managed to remain personal friends through it all, a discredited Chandrasekhar later left England for Chicago. ''It was a shattering experience,'' he says.
''Perhaps the prize would have meant more to me had I won it when I was younger,'' he reflects. Having had virtually every other type of distinction bestowed on him at some point in his career, he allows that public recognition was once a motivating force for his work. But now the satisfaction he derives from his efforts seems reward enough. ''At the moment, (public attention) is a terrible distortion of time.''
And Chandrasekhar needs time now as much as ever. He sees himself at a crossroads. His style of research demands enormous energy, tempered with an almost ruthless self-discipline. It has meant 12-hour days, 7-day weeks. It has also required a decent chunk of time - usually about a decade - to singlehandedly maneuver a project around any conceptual obstacles in his way.
''Chandra really differs from other top scientists in that his life is his work,'' observes longtime friend Martin Schwarzschild, an astrophysicist at Princeton University.''There is nothing else.''