365DaysDate: April 6, 2009


Title: Chandra: Contemplating Infinity

Podcaster: Colin Stuart

Description: The year is 1930. We’re in India, a country still under the iron grip of the British Raj. At the bustling docks of Madras a young nineteen-year-old Indian physicist is setting sail for English shores and Cambridge University. Voyaging westward Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Chandra for short, laid the framework for a revolution that would put him in direct conflict with the scientific establishment. He calculated that some stars could collapse into nothingness, literally becoming vanishingly small. This was the first mathematical description of black holes and would go on to earn Chandra a Nobel Prize, but not without a fight.

Bio: Colin Stuart is a freelance science communicator from the UK. Having spent 3 years in rainy Manchester taming the strange beast that is astrophysics, he now lives in London where he spends a lot of his time presenting astronomy shows in The Peter Harrison Planetarium, at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich. He also regularly appears across the internet and in podcasts and radio shows including The Jodcast, Science Made Fun and Capital Science.

Today’s Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Palomar.


Hi, I’m Colin Stuart and in today’s podcast I am going to tell you a story about of the most important astronomers of the 20th century.

An elderly Indian man gingerly stepped up to the lectern. Every pair of eyes belonging to the smartly dressed and esteemed audience was fixed squarely on his slender frame. Pearls of sweat gathered on his wrinkled brow. He was apprehensive to speak in front of his peers again after what had gone before, a long time before.

He was seventy three years old now but the spectre of that day had lingered so long in the memory that the pain was as real as the dignitaries before him. He began, “Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentleman.” Yet as he continued his mind could not help but drift back to that day almost fifty years ago.

It was a Friday, he was sure of it, how could he forget. His gut twisted. Full of boyish excitement he had been full of pride as he, at 24, bounded up the steps of London’s Royal Astronomical Society. His mood upon leaving that evening could not have been more different. To be given the opportunity to present your paper in front of such a collective of minds was an honour indeed. To have the chance to present your discovery after five long years just added to the delight. Finally, the platform he felt his achievements had warranted.

The next speaker on the floor, he was not listening to the astrophysicist currently droning on about some trivial details involved in the latest theory of stellar formation. His mind was elsewhere. Madras.

Half a decade earlier he had stood in the sweltering docks of the city, just along from the beach he used to play on as a child. The cacophony of smells reverberated around his nose and he could taste the salt that hung thick in the air. Madras was an onslaught on the senses. Each tick of his pocket watch seemed to last just a fraction too long as the hustle and bustle of the busy shipyard eddied and swirled around him. Traders peddled their wares and travelers rushed across him as porters were dwarfed by leather mountains. He was leaving. India bored him, he longed for the hallowed corridors of Cambridge and the intellectual stimulation that his stellar mind required. Long had he been the most gifted astrophysicist in India, now he needed to spar with the best the world had to offer. Ticket and case in hand he heaved his nineteen year old body up the gangway and onto the ship that would be his home for the long trip West. The journey that would change his fate forever.

It was fate that dominated the thoughts of the young Indian as the ship cruised away from the harbour. These thoughts continued to dominate his consciousness long after the Sun had kissed the horizon and traversed into hibernation. He sat upon the deck, running his fingers through his jet black hair as he stared up at a thousand other suns and contemplated their ultimate fate. The accepted wisdom held that the death throes of every star he could see would result in the white dwarfs that astronomers had already observed throughout the heavens. White dwarves were seen as the headstones in a solar cemetery, marking the spot where the relic of former life lay and destined to remain there for the life of the universe. Yet something sat uneasy in his mind as the starlight danced across his retina. Could this light, like him a weary traveller, hold the key to unlocking such a mystery? Suddenly, a spark of inspiration shone as bright as the thousand suns before him. Energised, he scurried around for the nearest writing equipment, could it really be true? Ten minutes and a page of mathematics later he had his answer.

“Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar,” boomed the chairman. Startled but roused by the memory of his discovery, Chandra rose to execute his moment in the spotlight. He had thirty entire minutes with which to deliver a hammer-blow to the established wisdom of those sitting before him. In his ocean-bound revelation he had proven that not all stars have a plot in the stellar cemetery. There was a limit to how massive a white dwarf could be, any more mass and the scales were tipped in favour of the unthinkable, a collapse into literal nothingness. Whilst it would take three more decades for the phrase to be coined, Chandra had visualised a black hole.

The paper was delivered with immense clarity of thought and purpose and Chandra felt justifiably proud of his work. He quietly backed away from the podium, left the stage and returned to his seat in the audience, eagerly anticipating the next speaker, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington. Eddington was a goliath in the world of astronomy, by far the most decorated scientist in the field. His place in history was sealed when in 1919 he had confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity through observations of a total eclipse. Eddington cut an impressive figure as he strode towards the stage. Tall, slender and pale-faced he was very much Chandra’s opposite. With his chest puffed out Eddington had a masterful air about him that commanded respect and upon reaching the podium he already held the audience firmly in the palm of his hand. Meanwhile, Chandra sat at the back of the room, his eyes locked on Eddington.

The stream of words that began to flow from his mouth were like rounds from a machine gun, volley after volley piercing Chandra’s ears and rattling through his bones. These meetings were normally filled with lively debate but this was different. Such acidity, such vitriol was nothing other than a personal attack on Chandra himself. Carefully, methodically and as always with an eye for the dramatic, Eddington strangled Chandra’s notions labeling them nothing more than “stellar buffoonery”. In his mind Chandra was just an outsider playing silly games with mathematics; his collapsing stars were nothing more than a numerical illusion.

In truth, Eddington had a vested interest. Chandra’s discovery threatened to destroy Eddington’s own pet theory, a theory long in the making. Eddington wasn’t going to give it up without a fight. White dwarfs were the end-point of stars, anything else was inconceivable. Eddington was revered and he knew it. So it was with a certain swagger that he lent upon his elevated position to play puppeteer with the people before him, carefully choreographing their thoughts to his own end. Even if they had seen through the façade no-one could have spoken out against Eddington, they couldn’t. Such insolence against such an austere figure could have destroyed a career in an instant. Eddington simply could not conceive that a star could collapse into nothingness; it did not fit his view of the universe irrespective of what the mathematics said. Sitting ashen faced at the back, Chandra’s emotions jangled uneasily in his head with anger, outrage and incredulity all bedfellows in the growing unrest coursing through his veins.

Something of his vivid recollections must have filtered through the ages. He was suddenly very aware that he had stopped talking and that the members of the audience nearest him were looking increasingly concerned at the growing silence emanating from the elderly Indian before them. Conscious of the grandeur of the occasion, Chandra quietly reigned in his troubled thoughts. After all wasn’t tonight finally retribution for the decades of disbelief endured as a result of Eddington’s viscous rebuke? He collected his thoughts and continued. “The award of a Nobel Prize carries with it so much distinction and the number of competing areas and discoveries are so many, that it must of necessity have a sobering effect on an individual who receives the Prize.”

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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