Scientist in exile [ Subramanya Chandrasekhar]

Sunday Times of India, 14 July 1991

Rajesh Kochhar

[This essay reviews Kameshwar C. Wali’s authorized biography of Subramanya Chandrasekhar, titled Chandra. The review was written when Chandrasekhar was still alive. I sent him a copy. His response makes interesting reading. He wrote in a personal letter dated 5 Aug 1991: “It is always interesting to read upon aspects of the book different reviewers select to comment. In this instance, there seems to be systematic difference between the reviewers in the “West” [his quotes]. When the biography came out in paperback, the blurb carried excerpt from this review. Subsequently I published two newspaper articles on Chandrasekhar, which may be seen as companion pieces:

R. Kochhar (1995) Transcending the limits: Chandrasekhar’s stellar contribution. Times of India, 19 Oct.]

R. Kochhar (1999) India-born U.S. astrophysicist. Chandra Observatory: Tribute to a legend. The Tribune, 27 Jul. {Cited in Wikipedia}


Chandrasekhar symbolises the practice of science at its noblest. A man of integrity, modesty, and exceptionally high standards, he is “the kind of person for whom and through whom the university existed”. His personality, like his mathematics, is self-consistent; there are no kinks, aberrations or loose ends. It is difficult to decide whether his research is an extension of his personality or whether his personality has been mounded by his research.Perhaps there has been a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Chandra’s life story by his compatriot Kameshwar C. Wali, himself a physics professor in the USA, is a labour of love. The biographer has reconstructed Chandra’s life mainly from material supplied by Chandra himself and has added his own comments and notes, at the end, which provide useful background material.

The best part of book starts after the author’s description of Chandra’s life. Entitled ‘Conversation with Chandra’, it describes in Chandra’s own words his thoughts on himself, his colleagues and his times. The book comes alive in these pages through Chandra’s sensitivity and honesty. Of special interest to Indian readers will be his views on men and matters in India.

This is not a scientific biography. As the author says, “it is biography of an individual whom I admired from a distance for many years.” It provides a splendid insight into the working of a great contemporary mind, and can be read with profit by lay persons for enlightenment, and by scientists for introspection.

Chandra – as he is universally known – wrote his first research paper in 1929 when he was an 18-year-old under -graduate at Presidency College, Madras. His uninterrupted research career, spanning six decades and three continents, has been marked by mathematical rigor and elegance. The award of a Nobel Prize in 1983 made him into science’s show boy and he found this rather unbecoming.

Chandra come of age a a time when western education had taken root in India; when modern physics was being founded in Europe; when the Imperial government in India has developed a mild sense of noblesse oblige; and when nationalism was assert in in self.

In 1930, when he was travelling from Delhi to Madras by first class (his father worked for the Railways), an English memsahib loudly expressed her disgust at having to share the compartment with a native, but added that at least he was in European dress. Chandra promptly left the compartment and returned in the typical south Indian dress of shirt and veshti.

Then again, Chandra once missed classes to go and listen to Jawaharlal Nehru who was visiting Madras. The principal, shocked to find Chandra among the “culprits”, exclaimed: ‘you too!’ But this did not prevent the college from creating a special scholarship to enable their brilliant student to go to England. Not surprisingly while the government did not hesitate to create a special scholarship to send Chandra to Cambridge for his PhD it would not create a job for him in India when he wanted to return.

In 1933 Chandra got his PhD and also the Fellowship of Trinity College which, 16 years previously, had been held by another Indian, Srinivasa Ramanujam. He now returned to the important question: what happens to a star once it is has burnt all its nuclear fuel? The leading lights of the day claimed that they already knew the answer: All stars finally retired as earth-sized white dwarfs.

Chandra was the first one to apply the theory of special relativity to understand the behaviour of stars. In his 1930 voyage out of India, he had done preliminary work on the topic and to remove all doubts about the results, he now got down to working out a complete, rigorous mathematical theory without taking any short-cuts.

Chandra found that all stars do not end up as white dwarfs, only low mass ones do. As to what happens to bigger stars, Chandra’s answer must rank as the understatement of the century: “. . . one is left speculating on other possibilities”. No white dwarf can be bigger than the Chandrasekhar mass limite, that is 1.4 times the mass of the sun. The “other possibilities” are the neutron star and the black hole, as even a school student knows today.

In January 1935, Chandra presented his results at the London meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was hoping to be warmly received by the astronomical community for his path-breaking research, little realising what he was in for. Sir Arthur Eddington, the most influential astronomer of the time, stood up to present his own results and tore Chandra to pieces, not by pointing out mistakes in his analysis but by ridiculing him, not by logic but by rhetoric. Sir Arthur did not believe in black holes. With a haughtiness one associates with Viceroys rather than scientists, he declared, “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd manner.”

Sir Arthur was blinded by his self-righteousness; the others by the glare of his self-righteousness; the others by the glare of his personality. It was not that one hypothesis was competing with another.It was an exact mathematical theory that was pitted against a refusal to listen. A desperate Chandra tried to enlist support form among the international community of astronomers and physicists. There was however no one who had the time or the courage to sit down with paper and pencil and see through the hollowness of Eddington’s arguments. After four long frustrating years Chandra gave up.

Having pitted himself against the dons of Cambridge and Oxford, young Chandra had no chance of a job in Britain or even Europe. The United States of America offered to take him in: “Out there, we don’t believe in Eddington”. Chandra left Sir Arthur’s England as well as the white dwarfs and headed for the University of Chicago in 1937 where he has remained ever since. He was the first non-white on the faculty of the university, which was, he puts it, “30 years ahead of its time”.

A lesser man would have been traumatized by the experience. But Chandra confronted the situation stoically and raarranged his thoughts. For one, he decided to never become an Eddington himself. He would retain a “certain modesty of approach”, and an open-mindedness. (In 1984, when I wrote to Chandra pointing out a mistake in one of his papers, his reply was warm and prompt; “Publish your results”) The second lesson Chandra learnt from the episode was even more momentous. He would never again try to canvass support for his work. He would let it speak for itself. Mathematics would be his only ally, and time his judge.

In a book that is now a classic, Chandra put down what he knew about white dwarfs and closed the topic. In his never-ending “quest for perspectives”, he would take up a new topic, work on it for a number of years, write a monograph, and move on.

All his work carries a uniform stamp of scholarship. And his later work tends to be the last word on the subject, unlike his early work on the white dwarfs, which was the first word. The first word took a long time to sink in. Chandra has won a number of prestigious awards, but for a long time there was no reference to his white dwarf work. In fact it was only in 1974, 40 years after the work, that a prize mentioned this work.

The belated Nobel Prize in 1983 tried to set things right. His citation refers to the work on white dwarfs “accomplished when he was in his 20s”. As if to compress the intervening time, the citation also mentions two pieces of later work on the relativistic instability of stars done in the ’60s.

It is futile to speculate what course Chandra’s life would have taken if the had won Sir Arthur’s support in 1935. There is, however, no doubt that Sir Arthur’s obduracy delayed the development of the subject by a generation. The recent work on neutron stars and black holes would certainly have been done in the late 30s and 40s as a natural extension of Chandra’s pioneering work.

Chandra has been good for American science. He would drive 100 miles, week after week, to teach a class of two American-Chinese students, both of whom went on to win the 1957 Nobel Prize. He has trained many generations of students and researchers, and taken extraordinary pains to set the standards for astronomical research journals.

Chandra has always kept in touch with India. It was his efforts that brought to light Srinivasa Ramanujan’s passport photograph, the basis for all later photographs, etchings and sculpture. As Chandra says, finding Ramanujan’s photograph has been one of his important discoveries.

From an Indian point of view, it is unfortunate that the country of his birth was not the theatre of his activities. Unlike Har Gobind Khurana who required sophisticated laboratories for his work, all Chandra has ever needed is a library and students. It is not that he did not try, or that India didn’t. He tried before independence, and India afterwards.

The first jog offer to Chandra came from Sir C.V. Raman, Chandra’s father’s younger brother and the director of the Tatas-sponsored Indian Institute of Science (IIS) Bangalore. He was offered an assistant professorship. Chandra’s father’s response was electric: “ My advice is keep out of his orbit.” Having an overbearing uncle in the family was enough of strain. Having him as boss would have been impossible. Not only did Chandra not want a job in his uncle’s institute, he also did not wand it through his influence.

In 1935 Chandra was interested in a mathematics professorship at Government College, Lahore (his birth place). But he withdrew when he came to know about the candidacy of S. Chowla, a personal friend “whose work and abilities I greatly admire”.

Chandra’s election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1944 (for which he was supported by Eddington) enhanced his job prospects in India. He was offered the directorship of the Kodaikanal Observatory, for which he was ill equipped. He could not do observational work and did not want to do administrative work. He asked for a comparable post where he would do his theoretical research. Nothing came of it, just as his earlier attempts to find reader’s post at a university had yielded nothing. While sending Chandra to Cambridge was good for Cambridge, creating a job for him in India would have been good for the Indians but Imperial Government was not interested.

A positive offer came from Dr Homi Bhabha in 1951 when he was building the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Bombay. Chandra was tempted, but not strongly enough. Soon after, he became a US citizen, and conditions changed drastically. In 1961 the CSIR, on instructions from Jawaharlal Nehru, offered him a national professorship, provided he relinquished his foreign citizenship.

Again, in 1963 when Dr Bhabha died, the government, forgetting that Chandra was no longer an Indian citizen, offered him the chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission. Of all the offers Chandra received, the most attractive was Dr Bhabha’s Looking back, he now feels that perhaps he should have accepted it, but at the time he was not quite sure whether he would fit in.

Chandra had had a ringside view of Indian science, first as Sir Raman’s nephew and then in his own right, and he did not like what he saw. The Trimurti of Indian physics: Raman, Meghnad Saha, and S.N. Bose, especially the first two, were always at each other’s throats. K.S. Krishnan, who worked with Raman but did not share the Noble Prize, was Chandra’s friend. (Chandra later obtained a copy of his diary for the Royal Society.)

Chandra liked Dr Bhabha and his cosmopolitanism but was dismayed by his autocracy. Once when Wolfgang Pauli and other foreign scientists came to India, they were transported in a bus. Dr Bhabha followed them in his limousine. An enraged Wolfgang Pauli left the country the next day.

Chandra did not want administrative power, but was not sure whether he would be academically free if he did not occupy the top slot himself. Raman’s advice was blunt: “Don’t play second fiddle”. The very fact that the concept of “first or second fiddle” existed put Chandra off.

The Chandra of British India had to leave his country for the sake of science. And the tragedy of independent India lies in the fact that if a Chandra, who wants academic freedom without administrative power or interference, were to appear today, he would still have to go into exile.

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