Born in 1910 in Lahore (then British India), Subramanyan Chandrasekhar was one of the most prominent Nobel Prize winning astrophysicists of the twentieth century; he is possibly best known for his calculation and creation of the Chadrasekhar Limit. Chandrasekhar was the third of ten children to his parents, a government officer and a translator. He received a private education until the age of twelve when his family moved to Madras. There, Chandrasekhar attended the Hindu High School (1922-1925). In 1925, he enrolled at Presidency College and earned his bachelor’s degree in physics by 1930. Demonstrating his lifelong commitment to being an academic, Chandrasekhar received a scholarship from the Government of India the same year to pursue graduate studies in Cambridge, England. One of his three years at Cambridge was actually spent at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, Denmark where he worked with Nobel Prize recipient Niels Bohr. In 1933, just three years after starting, Chandrasekhar was awarded his Ph.D. at Cambridge and also a Prize Fellowship at Trinity College (1933-1937).
Though all of his advancements in the astrophysics field have been major, his time as a Fellow at Trinity College produced the Chandrasekhar Limit. This limit shows that a star 1.44 times the mass of our sun does not form a white dwarf upon death, but rather collapses into itself until it forms a Neuron Star. His calculations led to further advancement in the fields of black holes, supernovas, and neuron stars. Unbelievably, when he first introduced his findings they were openly opposed by both Sir Arthur Eddington and Albert Einstein. While Chandrasekhar defended his work, he had no support from other European scientists, and soon realized his chances for getting a highly ranked British University were poor due to his lack of support from Eddington. Because of this, he accepted a position at the University of Chicago in 1937.
Starting as an assistant professor in 1937, Chandrasekhar quickly moved his way up the ranks to associate professor in 1942, full professor in 1944, Morton D. Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics in 1952 and received emeritus status in 1985. During his time at the University of Chicago, Chandrasekhar also did research at the University’s Yerkes Observatory and NASA’s laboratory for Astrophysics and space research. He also worked on projects during World War II (On the Decay of Plane Shockwaves and The Normal Reflection of a Blast Wave) at the Ballistic Research Laboratories at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland. Though he was not a United State’s citizen yet, he was still willing and eager to assist with the war. When offered a chair position at Cambridge in 1964, Chandrasekhar politely declined. Though he is best known for his Limit, Chandrasekhar also studied and developed theories regarding star mass, star structures, star atmospheres, and black holes.
Chandrasekhar’s research interests were incredibly broad and he published over 400 papers and 10 books before his retirement. He has also received an extensive list of awards over his distinguished career including: Fellow of the Royal Society (1944), the Bruce Medal (1952), the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1953), the National Medal of Science (1967), the Padma Vibhushan Medal (1968), the Henry Draper Medal (1971), the Nobel Prize (1983), the Copley Medal of the Royal Society (1984), and the Gordon J. Liang Award (1989).
Chandrasekhar received his Nobel Prize for “his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.” Winning the Nobel Prize in 1983 for his discoveries made in the 1930’s was a bit of a slap in the face to Chandrasekhar and he felt it undermined all his life’s work, however he still accepted the prize and continued to research after winning. In 1995 at age 85, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar died of heart failure; he was survived by his wife until 2013 when she died at age 102. As a lifelong scholar, Chandrasekhar’s contributions to his field have been essential, being used by college astronomy courses to top astrophysics researchers. His impact will be a lasting one.
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