Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

James A. Haught

If you think adolescents are a trial, please consider my all-time favorite teen.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in 1910 in Lahore (now in Pakistan), where his father was an Indian railway official. His uncle was physicist C. V. Raman, who had won a Nobel Prize.

After attracting notice as a brilliant science student, young Chandrasekhar won an Indian government scholarship to Cambridge University. During the boat trip to England, at age nineteen, he pondered equations for the ultra-dense matter inside white dwarfs.

In that era, white dwarf stars had newly been discovered. They were amazing bodies: old stars collapsed by gravity until they were no larger than Planet Earth. Their matter was unbelievably heavy—ten thousand times denser than steel, weighing ten tons per thimbleful. They seemed almost inconceivable.

Other physicists had speculated that resistance by compressed electrons would oppose the crush of gravity and stabilize a white dwarf at Earth’s size. But Chandrasekhar’s calculations reached a stunning conclusion: If the mass of a collapsing star is more than 1.4 times the mass of our sun, gravity will overwhelm electron resistance. The larger star will continue collapsing.

The teenager’s findings were published and became known as “Chandrasekhar’s Limit.” Other scientists scoffed at his theory. The great astronomer Arthur Eddington publicly declared that laws of nature would “prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.”

But Eddington was wrong. Like many aging scientists, he was locked into past theories and unable to accept new concepts. Younger geniuses eventually would surpass him. (An old wisecrack says that science advances funeral by funeral.)

In ensuing decades, astrophysicists found that Chandrasekhar had discovered something incredible: as larger stars collapse, electrons are squeezed into protons to form solid masses of neutrons. The substance of a neutron star (pulsar) weighs an astounding ten million tons per thimbleful. And still-larger stars collapse into unthinkable black holes that defy comprehension.

Chandrasekhar became a professor at the University of Chicago, where he pursued many venues of physics. In 1983—a half-century late—he was given a Nobel Prize for his teenage breakthrough. (When reporters came to give him the news, he told them that he had to hurry to class. But he wasn’t teaching the class—he was a student in it, in his seventies.) He died in 1995 at age eighty-four.

Although raised a Hindu, Chandrasekhar scoffed at supernatural religion. In public discussions, he said, “I consider myself an atheist.” He fit a well-known pattern: most of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, scientists, writers, philosophers, democracy reformers, and others called “great” can’t accept magical gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, and other religious dogmas.

 


 

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar Speaks

“I am not religious in any sense; in fact, I consider myself an atheist. Nonetheless, because the Hindu religion, despite its outward trappings, is an essentially rational way of life, it’s easy to live with it. It’s so tolerant.”

Interviewer: “Would you call yourself a religious person?”

Chandrasekhar: “No, I am an atheist.”

“I can read the Bhagvad Gita, recognize it as great literature, recognize that parts of it are wholly noble instructions to people. But I am unable to accept it as divine and—as one commonly says, a testament directly of God— because I know, at least I think I know, the Bhagvad Gita was written by man, and to attribute it to anything more seems irrational.”

Interviewer: “Do you have any strong convictions of a religious or philosophical nature?”

Chandrasekhar: “No. In fact, I can characterize myself definitely as an atheist.”

 

James A. Haught

James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and is a senior editor of Free Inquiry.


Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar unlocked the secrets of dwarf stars and black holes, but never needed the belief in God.

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