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Chandra: he thought long and deep about our universe.

Its full name is "The Chandra X-Ray Observatory," but almost everyone calls it Chandra. Launched into orbit in 1999, the powerful X-ray telescope was named in honor of one of the most respected astrophysicists of the twentieth century. His name was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, but almost everyone called him Chandra.

In July of 1930, Chandra left India to study in England. Soon after the voyage began, his ship entered rough waters. Chandra became seasick and lonely. After all, he was only nineteen, and he missed his relatives and friends.

But Chandra was no ordinary teenager. He already had a university degree in physics, and was now on his way to Britain's famous Cambridge University.

As soon as the seasickness left him, he resumed his studies. None of the partying on the ship distracted Chandra. With patient courtesy, he refused invitations to join the fun. Instead, he kept working. Before the voyage ended, he had made a discovery. Fifty-three years later, that discovery would help win him the great honor of a Nobel Prize.

Describing the Universe

At Cambridge, Chandra studied astrophysics, which means he used physics, chemistry, and mathematics to describe the universe. Meanwhile, he kept working on the discovery he had made during his voyage. Finally, in 1935, he presented this work at a major meeting of astronomers.

Chandra's discovery was about stars. During their life cycle, stars use up their fuel. Many stars then collapse from about the size of our sun to the size of a planet. At this size they are called white dwarfs. In 1935, astronomers imagined that all stars would end quietly that way.

Chandra upset that peaceful fantasy. He used Einstein's Theory of Relativity to calculate that some stars could not end as white dwarfs. If a cooling star were big enough, it would keep on collapsing because of the force of its own gravity.

The most respected astronomer in Britain, A.S. Eddington, ridiculed Chandra's work. "There should be a law of Nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way," he said.


Chandra was crushed. Astronomers rejected his discovery, even though some of the world's great physicists privately agreed that Chandra was right and that Eddington was wrong. However, few astronomers were skilled in physics then, and it took decades before they accepted Chandra's discovery. Today, almost everyone has heard of stars that collapse so much that they become black holes--objects with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing can escape from them, not even light.

But long before his discovery became accepted, Chandra got married, moved to the United States, and began teaching at the University of Chicago. Then he turned his attention to other areas of astrophysics. Eventually, he became an American citizen.

All the while, part of that teenager on the ship from India remained inside him until his death in 1995.

The loneliness was still there. He often spoke of it. And the patient courtesy never left him. But it was the last gift of the teenager inside him that was truly special and rare.

Alan Lightman, an American astrophysicist, explained, "Usually one associates rigorous detail and painful calculations with a younger scientist; but here he is, past seventy, doing hard calculations, which really inspires younger people--inspires me!"

And Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, said, "Chandra probably thought longer and deeper about our universe than anyone since Einstein."

Black Holes and More

In addition to his discovery about white dwarfs, Chandra studied the movement of stars in star clusters, and he improved mathematical methods for analyzing starlight. He studied the shapes and magnetic fields of galaxies. After all of that, he went back to relativity and black holes, and even further back to reexamine the physics of Isaac Newton.

Sometimes Chandra wondered whether spending his whole life in the service of science had been worth the cost. When I interviewed him in 1994, he said he wished he'd had more time for other things he enjoyed and for friends and family. "Science is far too stern a master," he told me. "Reading science and doing science should be a part of life, no different from studying literature or music."

During his career, Chandra received many awards for his work. And then, in 1983, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the life cycle of stars.

The recognition was welcome, but it dismayed him that most people cared only about the part of his work that had to do with black holes. Perhaps he would also be dismayed when people assume that the Chandra X-Ray Observatory is hunting only for black holes. Matter falling into black holes does give off X-rays that the telescope will detect, but there are many other sources of X-rays out there to explore. Indeed, like Chandra the astrophysicist, Chandra the telescope may help us all think longer and deeper about our universe.
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Title Annotation:Biography
Author:Rahaman, Vashanti
Publication:Highlights for Children
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 2000
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