Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983 for his pioneering studies on the death of stars that led to the discovery of “black holes” in outer space, has died. He was 84.
Chandrasekhar, known widely as “Chandra,” died Monday at the University of Chicago Hospital of a heart attack.
The India-born astrophysicist, who taught and conducted research at the University of Chicago for more than half a century, contradicted the popular scientific theory of the 1930s that all stars, after burning their fuel, become faint, planet-size remnants known as white dwarfs. He said that was true for small stars, but calculated that stars with 1.4 times the mass of the sun would continue contracting indefinitely, getting ever smaller and denser.
Confronted with his work, scientists became convinced that the death of a large star would mean a concentration of gravity so intense that nothing can escape, becoming a “black hole.” Chandrasekhar’s calculation of the size beyond which a star is destined to become a black hole has become known in astronomy terminology as the Chandrasekhar Limit.
He shared the 1983 Nobel Prize with Caltech physicist William Fowler, who was honored for his study of how elements were formed.
Chandrasekhar, who as a young British colonial saw science merely as “a place where I could make a name for myself,” first developed his theory of stars while on a ship traveling to England for postgraduate study at Cambridge. It was 1930 and he was 19. Feeling out of place among shipboard revelers and carousers, he closeted himself with his textbooks and concentrated on the question debated by astronomers of the day--what happens to a star once it burns up its store of energy.
He took the white dwarf concept to the subatomic level, asking himself what happens when a dying star’s electrons become so compressed that they begin to move with virtually the speed of light. He was able to calculate that large stars would have such a gravitational force that they could never reach a state of equilibrium, and so would not stop at the benign white dwarf stage.
In his later years, Chandrasekhar devoted himself to exploring the common ground between artistic creation and scientific discovery. He had been horrified, he once told an interviewer, when Enrico Fermi, his University of Chicago physicist colleague who split the atom, conceded over lunch that he had no idea who the artist El Greco was.
Chandrasekhar himself compared the prose of a favorite novelist, Virginia Woolf, to “an elegant mathematical formula.”
Among Chandrasekhar’s most recent scholarly papers were “The Perception of Beauty and the Pursuit of Science” and “On Appolonius, Kepler and Einstein, Newton and Shakespeare, and Madonna and Mrs. Pelham.”
An expert on Isaac Newton, Chandrasekhar recently completed a translation of Newton’s masterwork, “The Principia,” into the language of modern mathematics. This summer, he published his book, “Newton’s ‘Principia’ for the Common Reader.”
Born in Lahore, India, Chandrasekhar studied at Presidency College in Madras before earning his doctorate at Cambridge in 1933. He joined the University of Chicago in 1936 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953.
He was managing editor of the Astrophysical Journal, the official publication of the American Astronomical Society, from 1952 until 1971. Among his awards were Britain’s Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National Medal of Science.