Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Lesson 1, Topic 2
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Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

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Directions: Before you start, listen to part of a talk in an astronomy class.

*Vocabulary is sometimes provided in written form when it may be unfamiliar to the student but essential for understanding the lecture

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar
white dwarf stars
Sir Arthur Eddington
Henry Norris Russell

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar - Transcript

Born in 1910 in India, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, known as Chandra to his friends and colleagues, grew up in a home that encouraged scholarship and an interest in science. His uncle, C. V. Raman, was a physicist who won the 1930 Nobel Prize. A precocious student, Chandra tried to read as much as he could about the latest ideas in physics and astronomy, although obtaining technical books was not easy in India at the time. He finished college at age 19 and won a scholarship to study in England. It was during the longboat voyage to get to graduate school that he first began doing calculations about the structure of white dwarf stars.

Chandra developed his ideas during and after his studies as a graduate student, showing that white dwarfs with masses greater than 1.4 times the mass of the Sun cannot exist and that the theory predicts the existence of other kinds of stellar corpses. His calculations soon brought him into conflict with certain distinguished astronomers, including Sir Arthur Eddington, who publicly ridiculed Chandra’s ideas. At a number of meetings of astronomers, such leaders in the field as Henry Norris Russell refused to give Chandra the opportunity to defend his ideas, while allowing his more senior critics lots of time to criticize them.

Yet Chandra persevered, writing books and articles about his theories, which turned out not only to be correct but to lay the foundation for much of our modern understanding of the death of stars. In 1983, he received the Nobel Prize in physics for this early work.