Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910–1995)

An Indian-American astrophysicist, best known for his work on the life cycles of stars, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in Lahore, then part of India. His father worked for the Indian government and hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. However Chandra, as he was known throughout his life, wanted to be a scientist like his uncle Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the 1930 Nobel Laureate in Physics.

In 1930, Chandrasekhar won a scholarship from the Indian government to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. On his voyage to England he began the work that made his name, showing that stars with a mass greater than 1.44 times that of the Sun (now known as the Chandrasekhar limit) have to end their lives by collapsing into an object of enormous density. He said, ‘One is left speculating on other possibilities,’ hinting at objects such as black holes, whose existence would not be generally accepted by astronomers until several decades later. Chandra’s ideas met with resistance from the astronomical establishment in Britain and in 1937 he moved to the University of Chicago.

Chandrasekhar remained in Chicago for the rest of his career, turning down several prestigious offers from other institutions. His wide-ranging research included the structure and evolution of stars, quantum theory, the dynamics of moving liquids, and the mathematics of black holes and gravitational waves. He was also involved in ballistics research during the Second World War and edited the Astrophysical Journal for almost 20 years. He became a US citizen in 1953.

Chandrasekhar was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 for his work on the structure and evolution of stars. He retired in 1980, but lived in Chicago until his death. In 1999, after a public naming contest attracting entries from all over the world, NASA named the third of its four ‘Great Observatories’, an X-ray space telescope, after Chandra.

Further reading:
Arthur I Miller, Empire of the Stars: Friendship, Obsession and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes (London: Little, Brown, 2005)

Web links:
Chandrasekhar’s Nobel Prize in Physics, 1983, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1983

Chandrasekhar interviewed about his life and work, http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/4551_1.html

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/main/index.html