SUBRAHMANYAN CHANDRASEKHAR – THE NOBLE PRIZE WINNER WHO PRODUCED TWO OTHER NOBLE PRIZE WINNERS
Compiled by Sri Ramakrishna Prasad – Chennai
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century became a legend in his life time. His prolific contributions spanned astrophysics, physics and applied mathematics. His life is the best example of the height one can achieve provided one has the will power, skill and patience. His journey was not smooth. He had to struggle against all odds. He was a great scientist, an accomplished teacher and a formidable scholar.
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born on October 19, 1910. His father C. Subrahmanyan Iyer was in Government Service. C.V. Raman, the first Indian to get Nobel Prize in science was the younger brother of Chandrasekhar’s father. Chandrasekhar grew up in Madras (now Chennai). He joined the Madras Presidency College in 1925 where in the first two years he studied Physics, Chemistry, English and Sanskrit. On July 31, 1930 Chardrasekhar left for England for higher studies and thus began a long and outstanding scientific career which spanned 65 years.
He is best known for his celebrated discovery of Chandrasekhar Limit. He showed that there is a maximum mass which can be supported against gravity by pressure made up of electrons and atomic nuclei. The value of this limit is about 1.44 times a solar mass. This was derived by Chandrasekhar in 1930, when he was a student. The Chandrasekhar Limit plays a crucial role in understanding the stellar evolution. The formulation of the Chandrasekhar Limit led to the discovery of neutron stars and black holes. Chandrasekhar was awarded (jointly with the nuclear astro_physicist W.A. Fowler) the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983. While Chandrasekhar is best known for Chandrasekhar Limit, for him there was no limit.
Though Chandrasekhar was a US citizen, he was deeply concerned with India’s well-being. He had strong association with many scientific institutions and young scientists in India. In his childhood, he was inspired by Ramanujan’s example – an example of total dedication to science. His interest in Ramanujan was life long. He played an instrumental role in establishing the Ramanujan Institute of Mathematics in Madras in the late 1940s and when the Institute was facing financial crisis he took up the matter with Nehru. He also managed to get increased pension for Ramanujan’s widow who was living in abject poverty.
Chandrasekhar had the rare ability to inspire enthusiasm for hard work in others. More than 50 students did PhD work under his guidance. His relation with his students reminds us of guru-sishya tradition of earlier times. While he was working in Yerkes Astronomical Observatory in Wisconsin city, he was asked to be a part-time (two days in a week) Professor for Astronomy in Chicago University. He had to travel a distance of 160 Kms to and fro from his place. When he went to take class on the first day, there were only two students. The University authorities told that as per rules, if there are less than 4 students in a course, the course can be cancelled. However, Chandrasekar took classes for those two students for a period of 6 months. Due to his love and sincerity these two students viz., Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee later received Noble Prizes for their work.
Chandrasekhar was least concerned whether his work was going to bring him laurels and recognition. What was the motivation for Chandrasekhar in pursuing science? Everything he did was out of being curious in a productive way. He did it for one reason and one reason only — it would give him serenity and inner peace.