Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in Lahore on October 19, 1910.
His father C. Subrahmanyan Iyer was in Government Service. C.V.
Raman, the first Indian to get Nobel Prize in science was the younger
brother of Chandrasekhar's father. Chandrasekhar grew up in Madras
(now Chennai). He went to a regular school when he was eleven. He
joined the Madras Presidency College in 1925 where in the first
two years he studied Physics, Chemistry, English and Sanskrit. On
July 31, 1930 Chardrasekhar left for England for higher studies
and thus began a long and outstanding scientific career which spanned
65 years. Except for the first six years he worked at the University
He is best known for his celebrated discovery of
Chandrasekhar Limit. He showed that there is a maximum mass which
can be supported against gravity by pressure made up of electrons
and atomic nuclei. The value of this limit is about 1.44 times a
solar mass. This was derived by Chandrasekhar in 1930, when he was
a student. The Chandrasekhar Limit plays a crucial role in understanding
the stellar evolution. If the mass of a star exceeded this limit,
the star would not become a white dwarf. It would continue to collapse
under the extreme pressure of gravitational forces. The formulation
of the Chandrasekhar Limit led to the discovery of neutron stars
and black holes. It may be noted that stars are stable, that is
they do not collapse because internal pressures (due to the thermal
motion of the atomic nuclei and electrons and also the pressure
of the radiation generated by nuclear reactions) balance gravity.
However, for every star a time will come when nuclear reactions
will cease and that means there will be no internal pressure to
match the gravitational pull. Depending on the mass there are three
possible final stages of a star - white dwarf, neutron star and
black hole. Chandrasekhar was awarded (jointly with the nuclear
astro_physicist W.A. Fowler) the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983
While Chandrasekhar is best known for Chandrasekhar Limit, for him
there was no limit. As mentioned earlier his work spanned physics,
astrophysics and applied mathematics. In his own words: "There
have been seven periods in my life. They are briefly :
1)Stellar structure, including the theory of white
2) Stellar dynamics, including the theory of Brownian
3)The theory of radiative transfer, the theory
of the illumination and the polarization of sunlit sky, the theories
of planetary and stellar atmosphere, and the quantum theory of negative
ion of hydrogen (1943-50);
4) Hydrodynamic and hydromagnetic stability (1952-61);
The equilibrium and the stability of ellipsoidal
figures of equilibrium (1961-68);
The general theory of relativity and relativistic astrophysics (1962-71);
7) The mathematical theory of black holes (1974-83)".
His research output is phenomenal and every monograph
or book published by Chandrasekhar has become a classic. No serious
students of the concerned fields can ignore Chandrasekhar's work.
He was not motivated by a single problem but by a desire to acquire
a perspective on an entire area. He was never concerned with the
relative importance or unimportance of the subjects, he worked on.
He was least concerned whether his work was going to bring him laurels
and recognition. He said : "After the early preparatory years,
my scientific work has followed a certain pattern motivated, principally,
by quest after perspectives. In practice this quest has consisted
in my choosing (after some trials and tribulations) a certain area
which appears amenable to cultivation and compatible with my taste,
abilities, and temperament. And when after some years of study,
I feel that I have accumulated a sufficient body of knowledge and
achieved a view of my own, I have the urge to present my point of
view ab initio, in coherent account with order, form, and structure."
Once he finished a particular area he would be
ready to start on a fresh one. The essence of Chandrasekhar's scientific
life was `attaining a complete understanding of an area, grasping
and internalising it'.
Whatever he did he did not only with a seemingly
unmatched meticulousness but also with elegance. Lymnan Spitzer
said: "It's a rewarding aesthetic experience to listen to Chandra's
lecture and study the development of theoretical structures at his
hands. The pleasure sentences and divide them into paragraphs. Do
they make them short or long? For example, the idea of just using
one sentence for a paragraph, or of a concluding sentence without
subject or object. Just a few words .... `so it is' .... or some
small phrase like that. I deliberately follow such devices ....."
Being so deeply involved in science, he had other
interests as well. From the beginning he had developed interest
in literature. He said: "My interest in literature began in
a serious way in Cambridge around 1932. I used to devote most of
the two to three weeks between terms to the study of literature.
The real discovery for me at that time was the Russian authors.
I read systematically, in Constance Garnett's translation, all the
novels of Turgenev, Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, Brothers
Karamazov and Possessed. Chekov, I read of course all his stories
and plays. Not all the Tolstoy's, but Anna Karenina certainly. Among
the English writers I started reading Virgina Woolf, T.S. Eliot,
Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy, and Bernard Shaw. Henric Ibsen was
also one of my favourite authors...."
Chandrasekhar had the rare ability to inspire enthusiasm
for hard work in others. More than 50 students did PhD work under
his guidance. His relations with his students reminds us of guru-sishya
tradition of earlier times. While he evoked respect from his students,
he also encouraged them to put their viewpoints without any fear.
He said: "My students, students with whom I have worked closely,
are respectful in a way, that is reminiscent of earlier times that
we read of in books. At the same time they are not at all intimidated
by what I say. They will react either positively or negatively,
discuss and argue. If a person agrees with everything you say, then
there is no point in the discussion."
Throughout his professional life he continued interacting
with young people. Once he said: "I can easily imagine not
having lost anything if I hadn't worked with Fermi or Von Neumann;
but I cannot say the same thing with respect to my students".
He was the managing editor of the Astrophysical
Journal from 1952 to 1971. He converted essentially a private journal
of the University of Chicago into a national journal of the American
Astronomical Society. For the first twelve years the Journal was
managed by Chandrasekhar and a part-time secretary. "Between
us we took care of all the routine work. We took care of scientific
correspondence. We prepared the budget, advertisements, and page
charges. We made at the reprint orders and sent out the bills."
When Chandrasekhar became the Editor, the Journal had six issues
in a year totalling 950 pages but towards the end of Chandrasekhar's
editorship, the journal became twenty four issues totalling over
12,000 pages a year. Under his leadership the journal became financially
independent of the University of Chicago. He left behind a reserve
fund of US $ 500,000 for the journal.
Chandrasekhar mostly lived and worked abroad. In
1953 he became a US citizen. However, he was deeply concerned with
India's well-being. He had strong association with many scientific
institutions and young scientists in India. In his childhood, he
was inspired by Ramanujan's example - an example of total dedication
to science. His interest in Ramanujan was life long. He played an
instrumental role in establishing the Ramanujan Institute of Mathematics
in Madras in the late 1940s and when the Institute was facing financial
crisis he took up the matter with Nehru. He also managed to get
increased pension for Ramanujan's widow who was living in abject
poverty. He was also responsible for the busts of Ramanujan cast
by Richard Askey.
What was the motivation for Chandrasekhar in pursuing
science? As one of his students Yavuz Nutku said : "Forever
learning, Chandra couldn't care one bit about the establishment.
Everything he did was out of being curious in a productive way.
He did it for one reason and one reason only -- it would give him
serenity and inner peace."
For those who are pursuing science or are planning
to do we would like to end by quoting Chandrasekhar. "The pursuit
of science has often been compared to the scaling of mountains,
high and not so high. But who amongst us can hope, even in imagina_tion,
to scale the Everest and reach its summit when the sky is blue and
the air is still : and in the stillness of the air survey the entire
Himalaya range in the dazzling white of snow stretching to infinity.
None of us can hope for a comparable vision of nature and of the
universe around us. But there is nothing mean or lowly in standing
in the valley below and awaiting the sun to rise over the Kunchenjunga."
Chandrasekhar died on August 21, 1995.
1. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Kameshwar C. Wali,
Current Science pp. 477-479, 1998;
2. Chandrasekhar and His Limit by G. Venkataraman,
Universities Press, 1992;
3. Truth and Beauty : Aesthetics and Motivation
in science by S. Chandrasekhar, University of Chicago Press, 1987;
4. Chandra : A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar by
Kameshwar C. Wali, Penguin Books, 1990;
5. Eddington : The Most Distinguished Astrophysicist
of His Time by S. Chandrasekhar, Cambridge University Press, 1983;
6. Resonance (a journal of science education published
by the Indian Academy of Science, Bangalore) April 1997 Issue.