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S Chandrasekhar: Why Google honours him

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 18/10/2017

Described as a "child prodigy" and hailed as the first astrophysicist to win a Nobel Prize for his theory on the evolution of stars, Diwali on Thursday would have been Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar 107th birthday.

In his honour, Google is changing its logo in 28 countries to a doodle, or illustration, of him and the Chandrasekhar limit.

But in his lifetime, the Indian American astrophysicist was not always recognised for his achievements. This is his story:

Intellectual family

  • Born in Lahore in 1910 to a Tamil family, Chandrasekhar was home tutored until 12.

  • In his autobiography, Chandrasekhar referred to his mother as "My mother Sita was a woman of high intellectual attainments".

  • His uncle, Sir CV Raman, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930. 

  • Also in 1930, Chandrasekhar completed his bachelor's degree in physics at the Presidency College in Madras, India.

  • Chandra was then awarded a scholarship by the government of India to pursue graduate studies at the University of Cambridge in UK.. He completed his PhD studies in 1933.
  • Married to one of his juniors in the southern Indian city of Chennai [then known as Madras], Chandrasekhar praised his wife as "patient understanding, support, and encouragement" and called the attributes the "central facts of my life".

Late recognition

  • Working as a researcher at Cambridge University, Chandrasekhar made his most significant discovery, which became known as the Chandrasekhar limit. But his colleagues were sceptical of his discovery, and sought to discredit it.

  • According to the Open University, English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington persuaded Chandrasekhar to present his findings at the Royal Astronomical Society in London on January 11, 1935.

  • At the astronomical society, Eddington then gave a lecture to "demolish the young researcher’s calculations and theory, dismissing it as mere mathematical game playing".

  • More than 30 years later, in 1966, scientific research with computers and the hydrogen bomb gave credit to Chandra's calculations.

  • Black holes, central to Chandra's theory, were identified in 1972. Chandrasekhars calculations contributed to the understanding of supernovas, neutron stars and black holes.

Security clearance

  • In 1937, Chandrasekhar emigrated to the US and starting working at the University of Chicago.

  • During World War II, he was invited to join the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos to make a nuclear bomb, but delays in the processing of his security clearance prevented him from joining. 

  • Still, Chandrasekhar contributed to the war effort, working for the Ballistic Research Laboratory in Maryland. 

  • In 1953, 16 years after he came to the US, Chandra was granted US citizenship. He died in Chicago at the age of 85.

Quotes

  • In his book Truth and Beauty, Chandra he offered his advice to aspiring scientists: "What a scientist tries to do essentially is to select a certain domain, a certain aspect, or a certain detail, and see if that takes its appropriate place in a general scheme which has form and coherence; and, if not, to seek further information which would help him to do that."

  • In his autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Prize ceremony, he described what motivated his scientific quest: "When after some years of study, I feel that I have accumulated a sufficient body of knowledge and achieved a view of my own, I have the urge to present my point of view, ab initio, in a coherent account with order, form, and structure".

  • In an interivew, Chandra praised the US: "I have one advantage here in the United States.. I have enormous freedom. I can do what I want. Nobody bothers me". 

Honours

  • When Chandrasekhar was 43, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

  • At the age of 56, he was awarded the National Medal of Science for his numerous contributions to stellar astronomy, physics and applied mathematics.

  • At the age of 61, he was honoured with the Draper Medal of the US National Academy of Science for his leadership in, and major contributions to, the field of astrophysics.

  • In 1983, at 73 years of age, Chandrasekhar shared the Nobel Prize in Physics wiith William Fowler for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.

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