Booknotes: Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar

Not a statement in science, not an observation, not a thought exists in itself. Each was ground out of the harsh effort of some man, and unless you know the man and the world in which he worked, the assumptions he accepted as truths; the concepts he considered untenable; you cannot fully understand the statement or observation or thought.

~ Isaac Asimov, The Nature of Science

chandra k c waliFirst published in 1990, this biography is a rather delicious collection of interwoven anecdotes that take us into the mind and life of a Nobel Prize-winning Indian-American scientist, Chandra (as he was known), spanning decades across India, England and the US. Those who know anything of this unassuming, quiet, professorial man consider it most remarkable is that he did not win his Nobel till 50+ years after having made his stellar discoveries and practically at the end of his long teaching career. And, in 1999, NASA named their premier X-ray observatory after him.

KC Wali, the biographer, and a former student, did his undergraduate and masters degrees in physics and mathematics in India and graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, specializing in elementary particle physics. After two years at Johns Hopkins University as a Research Associate, Wali joined the High Energy Theory Group at Argonne National Laboratory in 1962. From 1969 to 1998, he was at Syracuse University as Professor of Physics and now holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus.

Wali’s deep and abiding interest in both his subject and the science really shine through in this narrative. As Dyson, another physicist wrote in his own review (in Physics Today):

Wali has given us a magnificent portrait of Chandra, full of life and color, with a deep understanding of the three cultures – Indian, British, and American – in which Chandra was successively immersed. If the book is only read by physicists, then Wali’s devoted labors were in vain.

Chandra was an astrophysicist and a Nobel Laureate. But, these two facts alone are not what drew me to him. In 1983, the news that he and William A. Fowler had won the Nobel Prize in physics for work on white dwarf stars registered vaguely in my pre-teen subconscious. Our Physics teacher told us that he was related to the famous C V Raman (CVR), the second-most famous Indian Nobelist at the time (Rabindranath Tagore holding first place always, even now). And then, she went on to glorify the virtues of CVR, without elaborating on Chandra’s. Years later, when I was devouring everything written by and about Virginia Woolf, I discovered Chandra again. He had, in his 3-minute Nobel Prize acceptance speech, quoted from her novel, ‘The Waves‘. His love for and attention to language came searing through later in ‘Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science‘ on the relationship between art and science.

After a handful of sporadic introductions to an elusive and very private man, stumbling on this biography in a Montreal second-hand bookstore (shout-out to Ex Libris on Rue Villeneuve, which is now, sadly, only mail-order) was one of those serendipitous discoveries that bibliophiles everywhere will identify with.

I can still barely comprehend the discipline, rigor, patience and fortitude that Chandra must have possessed to make his stellar discovery in 1930 and not gain the full deserved recognition for it till 1983. To have achieved this at age 19, only to then find himself in a huge controversy with Eddington (the leading figure in astronomy then and considered largely responsible for Einstein’s acceptance in the scientific world), who discredited Chandra’s work as incorrect and useless. To have all astronomers, without exception, view him as a Don Quixote trying to kill Eddington and those subscribing to the works of the latter. To have a mother who aspired for her son to return from England with the glory of Ramanujan, and outshine his famous Nobel-winning uncle, CVR. To have that renowned uncle be so dismissive of him and his pursuits in “the backwaters of science” that Chandra achieved his scholarships, publications, and future accolades without the slightest intervention from him. Finally, to have his own father quote Sir Walter Scott at him in a severely reprimanding response to Chandra’s decision to obtain US citizenship thus:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d.

As is often the case, the people closest to us have both a negative and a positive influence on our lives. And, Wali is a very fair and thorough biographer. He reveals how Eddington’s feud with Chandra influenced the latter’s entire attitude to science. Chandra decided that the most important thing in science was to continue to be productive and active, not to worry about the controversies and that, if he was right, then people would know in time. This was also one of his chief reasons for not returning to India after his Trinity Fellowship at Cambridge. At that time, there were bitter rivalries within the group of leading scientists in India. For instance, Raman and Krishnan, Raman and Saha, SN Bose and Saha, both Saha and Bose against Raman, etc. In fact, Krishnan, with whom Chandra had a warm friendship for years, advised him in a letter circa 1936 to not return to India for at least 2 years due to the oppressive scientific atmosphere. Chandra maintained that he would still have considered returning if a decent position, other than as director of an observatory, had been available to him. In later years, even Chandra’s father acknowledged that India had used him ill, and that her enlightened citizens or those in power had given him no thought, nor cared for his work or his personality. When he was eventually offered a position by Bhabha at the Tata Institute, almost a decade after he had left India, he was unsure about being able to fit in again.

Chandra’s parents were rather remarkable in their own way, which explains some of Chandra’s early predisposition to science and literature. His mother, Sitalakshmi, was, as per the norm for most women of her time, not well educated. Yet, she studied English after her marriage and translated Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House‘ into the Tamil language. Chandra’s father, CS Aiyyer, was quite the writer too, and well versed in Carnatic music. Learned in the Arts and the Sciences, he passed on his rich legacy — in turn, received from his own father — to Chandra and the other children. There are several heartwarming and absorbing episodes in this book about Chandra’s parents, their own upbringing and the subsequent nurturing of their offspring.

Chandra met his wife, Lalitha, when studying a physics honors course in South India. She was 17, also an aspiring physicist at the time, and the only “lady student” in the class. Her own heritage is quite unusual for a woman of her era. Her aunt was the famous Sister Subbalakshmi — a child widow who was instrumental in setting up a number of women’s education institutions in 1920s India by championing the cause long before Mahatma Gandhi started to do so. Chandra’s father had been allowed to choose his bride and so was Chandra. There is a touching story of how he wooed her. Lalitha wanted to pursue her physics research too after graduation. But, India had not made such progress yet, especially for an unmarried woman. I do wonder at what might have been, if theirs had been a collaboration of great minds at work as well, like that of the Curies. It is perhaps India’s loss that we never did find out, and that such a history-altering event never occurred.

The work of a theoretical astrophysicist in those days was not an easy job (I don’t suppose it is that much easier now), as Wali explains:

There are no controlled, reproducible experiments in astronomy. The laboratory is out in space. There is only one universe we know that came into existence some ten billions of years ago. Its beginnings and early moments, its present large- and small-scale structures – the formation of galaxies, the evolution of stars, the fundamental constitution of matter – have to be inferred by theories based on our microcosmic understanding of terrestrial phenomena. The laws of physical science thus learned must then be extrapolated sometimes to vast scales of space and time and to extreme conditions of matter very different from those encountered on earth. To interpret and deduce what is observable from such extrapolations requires a mastery not only of diverse mathematical techniques but also of several branches of the physical sciences several orders of magnitude more complex than what is required, say, in one special area of physics.

Chandra’s research mode, as colleague and Physicist, Kip Thorne, explained, was one of sitting by himself with zero interaction for days, struggling with equations, trying to make the math fit the patterns, and then explaining it in mathematical terms rather than physical terms. In this kind of mathematical astrophysics, Chandra’s contributions have yet to be surpassed. The amount of work he published was phenomenal. Little wonder, when you consider the kind of travel reading he had on his passage from India to England: Eddington’s ‘The Internal Constitution of the Stars‘, Compton’s ‘X-Rays and Electrons‘, and Sommerfeld’s ‘Atomic Structure and Spectral Lines‘. And, this was all the material he needed to do his calculations and make his discovery while still on board; a young and solitary man, earnest in his passion.

As this scientist grew in age and experience, his quiet elegance, simple style and graceful imparting of knowledge to his PhD students (some went on to win the Nobel Prizes before he did) gained him an untarnished and world-class reputation. He did not care about the establishment, and only about the pursuit of knowledge and learning and productivity. His long and loyal tenure with the University of Chicago, despite more alluring offers from other esteemed institutions, is irrefutable testimony to these traits.

For those of us who enjoy reading biographies, they also provoke a deeper form of critical inquiry. How did X’s life and work illuminate our cultural and intellectual history? What were the social, familial, cultural structures and traditions that nurtured his/her genius and outlook? How did X influence the way we think about ourselves and interpret our society? And finally, what can we learn from X’s life and work that will be of use to us? This biography answers these questions rather generously – from the early influences that prevailed on Chandra to the paramount influences that he, in turn, brought to bear through his life and work.

Reading this life history brought to mind some of the great scientists such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton, and their amazing discoveries during the European Renaissance of the mid-15th to the 17th centuries. Considering their intellectual masterpieces — ‘Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences’, ‘Astronomia Nova’ and ‘Principia Mathematica’ respectively — it is clear that their scientific goals went far beyond making those course-altering discoveries. As did Chandra’s.

It is believed, and I love this idea, that India also experienced a Renaissance of sorts in the heady years leading up to her Independence. This was also the era, as most of you will know, when India saw 2 of her 5 Nobelists make their mark. Here’s how Chandra himself had put it:

In the modern era before 1910, there were no Indian scientists of international reputation or standing. Between 1920 and 1925, we had suddenly 5 or 6 internationally well-known men. I myself have associated this remarkable phenomenon with the need for self-expression, which became a dominant motive among the young during the national movement to assert oneself. India was a subject country, but in the sciences, in the arts, particularly in science, we could show the West in their own realm that we are equal to them.

Of course, all human beings, no matter how great their genius, have their flaws and imperfections. But, time has a way of absorbing these, as Peter Kapitsa of the Royal Society of Engineers said once, leaving only a great man with an astounding brain and great human qualities. So, I find myself unable to end without sharing another personal facet of this gentleman, the latest addition to my pantheon.

Chandra’s younger brother, Balakrishnan, wanted to be a writer, while their father wanted him to be a doctor. At such a time, Chandra wrote Balakrishnan a 15-page letter. And, this excerpt is not only timeless advice but tells us so much more about the man than accolades and tributes ever will:

I wish I could divulge to you the sorrows of my heart, and tell you how I feel at times that my heart will break by the oppression of my ignorance. You are mistaken and so are others, if they think that I have proved anything at all. My progress I only know too well is positively shameful.

What is essential, however is to have the ideal of gaining knowledge and to work steadfastly towards the ideal. One should not care to worry about what happens. One must lay sound foundations, one must have enough enthusiasm, one must have a passion, one must be filled with the joy of study. That is enough. Age does not matter. It is never too late to begin.

…do not damage your inner feelings and aspirations. … If your aspirations are deep-seated, do not on any account damage them or molest them.


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