Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

28
Ideal Scholar
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Birth and Death

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, or “Chandra,” as he was known to colleagues, friends, and relatives, often asked his wife, Lalitha, to sing a song in which the composer laments the cycles of births and deaths that follow him through life. Beginning with an odd incident provoked by Arthur Eddington, Britain's preeminent astrophysicist in the 1910s and 1920s, cycles of intellectual births and deaths became the pattern of Chandra's creative life in science. Lalitha describes this unique approach in a remembrance: “Each field, or cycle… took from ten to fifteen years, for the selection of the subject for investigation, study of the available scientific literature on the subject, his own research that followed, the scientific papers he wrote on the subject, and, finally, the way he gathered all the material that lay in front of him into a coherent whole that was the book on the subject.”

When the book was completed, it was truly a death for Chandra: he had no more to say on the subject, refusing to spend time on the residue of minor issues remaining. “It was not in his spirit to pick up the crumbs,” writes Lalitha. A “fallow period” would follow while he searched for a new field. It could be a frustrating and depressing time for him, and he would say to Lalitha, “Your friend [the composer], sing his song.”

The exigencies of his life and career forced Chandra into several drastic cultural changes, each of which must have also seemed to him like a death and difficult birth. He was a native of southern India, and he said throughout his life that he felt at home only in India. Nevertheless, he left India at age nineteen and never returned except for visits. India could not offer him the graduate training he needed in astrophysics, and later afforded no suitable career opportunities for him. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, for his graduate degree and a subsequent appointment as a Trinity fellow. The cold English climate, the bland English food, and the occasional eccentricities of the English were major and minor obstacles, but Chandra made many lasting friendships in England and

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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