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MAN OF SCIENCE

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THIS COLLECTION STRIVES TO BRING TO THE FORE THE PERSON THAT WAS SUBRAHMANYAN CHANDRASEKHAR AND THE LIFE HE LED: FROM HIS ENGAGEMENT WITH SCIENCE TO THE LITTLE ANECDOTES THAT ILLUMINATED THE LIVES OF THOSE AROUND HIM.

M V KAMATH<

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India has hardly half a dozen Nobel Prize winners and when one thinks of our award winners, the names that automatically come to mind are those of Rabindranath Tagore and C V Raman. It is seldom realised that a nephew of Dr Raman – his elder brothers son, one of fourteen children – also is a Nobel Laureate. And that happens to be S. Chandrasekhar, an astrophysicist.

Raman won his award in 1930, Chandrasekhar in 1983. But he had been awarded Indias Padma Vibhushan much earlier in 1968. A biography of Chandrasekhar was long due.


This volume meets the need halfway. It consists of two parts.

Part One is a collection of some of his lectures delivered and essays written – some nine of them – that reflect his scientific concerns, though one lecture breaks the mould and deals with the Nobel Laureates recollection of Indira Gandhi who he apparently held in high regard. He describes her as ” a great lady, if every there was one”. At a meeting in New Delhi she told Chandrasekhar: ” You can have no idea as to how impossible it is to do something positive in this country ( India). Everyone wants to criticise and to find fault.” Part Two consists of reminiscences of some member of his large family spread across three generations and these tell us more about him, perhaps, than a standard biography would have. We have glimpses of his childhood and early manhood.

He was ” anna” to his seven younger siblings and ” ayya” to his two elder sisters. He did his Physics Honours at the prestigious Presidency College, Madras University, spending most of his time engrossed in reading. He had a neat and beautiful handwriting, right down the years.

Though he could sometimes be aloof, one of his relatives insists that ” humility was a hallmark of his”. He had a good sense of humour and could laugh at himself. Often he would recount that at Chicago where he taught, the University staff, unable to pronounce alt39 Subranamyam Chandrasekharalt39 would call him alt39 Superman Candy- suckeralt39. After his graduation from Madras, he went to Trinity College, Oxford in 1933 where he obtained his PhD. Three years later he went to the States, joining Yerkes Observatory as a Research Associate in 1937.

It is interesting to learn that at first the Dean of Chicago Universitys Physics Department would not allow Chandrasekhar to lecture at the campus because he was ” a black scientist from India”! The Universitys President has to put his foot down and order that ” Mr Chandrasekhar shall give his lectures” which were to turn so popular that students flocked to hear him. In time he was destined to guide fifty- one students to get their PhDs, something of a record. In his own field he hardly had any equals. His alt39 The Mathematical Theory of Black Holesalt39 was to go down as a monumental undertaking. It was to be followed by a series of papers on colliding waves and later on non- radial oscillations.

Once he was asked to give a talk on Isaac Newtons alt39 Principiaalt39. He drew a diagram the way he thought Newton must have drawn it when he proved a particular corollary. Imagine his surprise when, going through the Cambridge University Archives he found a diagram exactly identical to the one he had drawn! He was told: ” Chandra, you have succeeded in entering Newtons mind and discovered how his mind worked”. Once the President of Chicago University, Hutchins, told Chandrasekhars wife, Lalitha: ” You know, the best thing I did for the University of Chicago was to appoint your husband to the Faculty.” Chandra was the Managing Editor of alt39 The Astrophysical Journalalt39 and he gave every spare moment of his time to bring it out until a day came when Lalitha blurted out to him: ” Chnara, for how long are you going to be stuck with this journal? Should you not thi