You are here

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

October 18, 2010

For most people, an ocean voyage is a time for a little R&R. But for a young Indian physicist, it was a time for C&C -- contemplation and calculation. He pondered the fates of stars, and realized that they won't all end their lives in the same way. His work earned him a Nobel Prize.

Subrahmanyan ChandrasekharChandrasekharSubrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born 100 years ago this week in British India. After earning his degree in physics, he was invited to pursue a doctorate at Cambridge University. It was during the two-and-a-half week trip to England, in 1930, that he contemplated the fates of stars.

Stars like the Sun die by casting their outer layers into space, leaving only their cores, known as white dwarfs. These objects are thousands of times denser than normal matter -- so dense that most of the star's mass is packed into a ball the size of Earth.

Chandra calculated that there's a weight limit for white dwarfs: around one-and-a-half times the mass of the Sun. Anything heavier must either collapse further or explode.

But one of England's leading astronomers considered the idea absurd. He turned most other astronomers against Chandra's ideas. So the young physicist left England and took a job at the University of Chicago, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Chandrasekhar pursued many areas of research during his career. But in 1983, he received the Nobel Prize for his work on the evolution of stars -- work that began with a boat ride more than five decades earlier.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

Today's program was made possible in part by the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

Get Premium Audio

Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.