Chandrasekhar’s ‘stellar buffoonery’
Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16
Whilst travelling by sea from India to England to continue his studies at Cambridge in 1930, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar had nothing to do but think and study so, naturally, he chose to use the time to apply the theory of relativity to collapsing stars. He calculated that a star would become a white dwarf if it had a mass of less than 1.4 solar masses, reporting that his calculation was “so simple and elementary anyone could do it”.
Once he arrived, Chandrasekhar found it difficult to settle into Cambridge, partly because of the prevalence of racial prejudice. He reported being “suffocatingly lonely” like a “single electron in deadly free space”. To compound his isolation, Chandrasekhar’s ideas met with disfavour from Arthur Eddington who used an address at a conference to critique his younger colleague:
… I felt the same objections as earlier to this stellar buffoonery; at least it was sufficient to rouse my suspicion that there must be something wrong with the physical formula used.
Eddington refused to accept Chandrasekhar’s results commenting that: “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way!”
The dispute has been characterised as an ‘uneven fight’ between the 25-year-old
Indian physicist, newly arrived in the country, and the distinguished and well connected Eddington. Chandrasekhar reported his feelings of dismay:
I felt that astronomers without exception thought that I was wrong. They considered me as sort of Don Quixote trying to kill Eddington… it was a very discouraging experience for me… to have my work completely and totally discredited by the astronomical community.
Despite the difficult initial reception of his ideas, Chandrasekhar’s calculations are now widely accepted.