Astrophysicists are people, too. And that’s not always a good thing.
Such was the harsh lesson learned by 20-year-old prodigy Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar—known as Chandra—when on Jan. 11, 1935, he rose before the august Royal Astronomical Society in London to announce his discovery that certain oversized stars would inexorably collapse into themselves to the point of nothingness. The young Indian graduate student expected to be lauded for his achievement. Instead, the most renowned British astrophysicist of the day, Sir Arthur Eddington, who had been Chandra’s inspiration and mentor, promptly ridiculed the finding, setting off a feud with the stunned Chandra that effectively halted his work on the subject for 40 years. In this scholarly, richly footnoted story, Miller (History and Philosophy of Science/University College, London; Einstein, Picasso, 2002) focuses on Chandra’s long struggle to overcome the setback of Eddington’s attack. (Chandra was later recruited by Enrico Fermi to the faculty at the University of Chicago, and in 1983 he received the Nobel Prize.) But in the process, he also introduces us to astrophysics research from the 1930s to the present, and to the often prickly, turf-guarding scientists behind them. The portraits of Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr, along with many others, are fascinating as we follow their gaze from the stars deep in space to the microcosmos of atomic particles. Their realization that the answers to the life and death of stars could be found in the protons and electrons of the atom led to breathtaking discoveries—finally affirming Chandra’s theory on “black holes” as well as on the creation of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Chandra himself chafed throughout his life under the prejudice he suffered as a nonwhite scientist.
Despite a generous index of biographical sketches, a glossary of scientific terms, and copious footnotes, this is still dense reading, aimed more at the scientifically inclined than the general reader. The rewards for the diligent, however, are many and profound.