Empire of the stars
by Ian Simmons
[ bookreviews ]
In the history of science there are key moments of confrontation which have reverberations vaster than their scale would suggest: Huxley and Wilberforce over evolution; Bohr and Heisenberg in Copenhagen; Wittgenstein brandishing a poker at Karl Popper... Empire of the Stars is the story of another of these pivotal occasions.
On the last day of July 1930, a promising 20-year-old physicist from India, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, known to all as Chandra, left Madras on the long voyage to England, where he was heading to advance his scientific career. To while away the time on his journey, he worked on a problem in astrophysics: what happens to stars at the end of their lives? The idea of black holes had been in the air for some years, but the implications of the concept had not been worked through, while the leading theory of the day contended that such entities were impossible, and stars would end up as white dwarves. However, no one had combined relativity and quantum mechanics in their interpretation of star death. This is what Chandra did on his long voyage, and what emerged was truly revolutionary. The maths not only suggested that black holes exist, but demanded it, meaning that the prevailing theory, championed by the august pillar of British physics, Sir Arthur Eddington, had to be wrong.
On arrival in the UK, Chandra did not commit the error of immediately antagonising the physics establishment, but spent time building up his experience and reputation, talking about his ideas and discoveries and refining the detail until he was ready to present a ground-breaking paper on black holes at the Royal Astronomical Society on 11 January 1935 with most of Britain’s leading physicists, including Eddington, in the audience. Up until then, Chandra had every reason to believe he would be well received, as many had supported and encouraged him in developing his theory, including Eddington himself. He was very wrong. In a surprise paper scheduled immediately after Chandra’s, Eddington tore his ideas apart, publicly humiliating Chandra in front of his peers - a shock that reverberated through Chandra’s entire career. Chandra was right, and Eddington’s attack was based on a combination of ego, scientific snobbery and colonial-era racism; but it meant black holes were not taken seriously again for nearly 40 years, and Chandra had to struggle to regain his scientific credibility. Nonetheless, he succeeded, going on to win a Nobel Prize in 1983 and having the Chandra space observatory named after him posthumously.
Empire of the Stars is a riveting look at the development of physics during the 20th century, seen through the lens of two men’s scientific rivalry, and how the era’s cultural currents influenced it. It is an excellent story of how inconvenient science can be “damned” by an establishment prejudiced in the face of all the evidence; but nonetheless, it is a hopeful one, in that the truth won out in the end. The book, however, really belongs to Chandra. It provides an affectionate, but unbiased, picture of a fascinating and complex man who had to fight against prejudices of race, age and snobbery to establish important scientific truths, and who finally got to see his discoveries open whole new areas of physics that have hardly begun to be explored, even today.