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The dark side of astronomy

Empire of the Stars: Friendship, Obsession and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes

Little, Brown/Houghton Mifflin: 2005. 416 pp. £16.99/$26 061834151X 0316725552 | ISBN: 0-618-34151-X

Science, unfortunately, is done by humans. This makes scientific debates subject to the usual follies of human interaction, prejudices and lack of objectivity. One classic example in the modern history of astrophysics is the dispute between Arthur Eddington and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (also known as Chandra) regarding the fate of stars with masses above a critical value. In 1930, at the age of just 19, Chandra made the pioneering discovery that such objects should continue to collapse to a singularity, a mathematical point of infinite density. Eddington, the leading authority in astrophysics at the time, ridiculed this conclusion. And thereby hangs a tale.

The fate of such massive objects is an extremely important question in astrophysics. Chandra was predicting the existence of black holes, although this idea was years away from reaching maturity. He reached his viewpoint by combining the laws of special relativity with those of quantum theory as applied to particles such as electrons when they are in a state in which they are said to be relativistically degenerate. Chandra's calculations, related to the pressure of the relativistically degenerate gas, led him to the conclusion that gravity will inexorably crush a sufficiently massive body to a point.

If Eddington had merely expressed discomfort at matter collapsing to a point-like singularity of infinite density, that would have been fair enough. Even today we do not understand what actually happens to matter that falls into a black hole, and those of us who have thought about it are uncomfortable with the notion of a singularity. But Eddington questioned Chandra's logic and his calculation, and raised irrelevant objections. Later work completely vindicated Chandra, but the early humiliation left a deep scar. We can only speculate about what would have happened if Eddington had taken the scientifically correct stand and helped to develop Chandra's ideas further.

Historian Arthur Miller tells this story in a lively and exciting narrative in Empire of the Stars. The book is so beautifully written that I read it in one sitting. The scientific issues, as well as the personalities of everyone involved in the debate, have been described in picturesque detail without either mincing words or making unsubstantiated claims. Wherever necessary, Miller is careful to give references to the sources from which he has gathered the information, making the work fairly authoritative. In short, this book is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in astrophysics or the history of science.

The book begins with the dramatic moment when Chandra gave a seminar on his results at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London in January 1935, and describes how Eddington made mincemeat of it. It then goes backwards in time, caricaturing both of the dramatis personae, Chandra and Eddington. Having put the pieces together, Miller goes on to describe how this particular episode left its mark on Chandra. As well as the story of Chandra's encounter with Eddington, Miller tells of the progress made in this subject over the years, and an appendix brings the story of supernova and stellar collapse up-to-date. The language is non-technical and the book is accessible to general readers.

Miller tries not to present people in black-and-white terms. He succeeds to a remarkable extent, and much of the discussion is appropriately candid. For example, he doesn't shy away from mentioning the racial prejudices that existed in Chandra's time. And he has no hesitation in referring to Eddington's visits to Chandra in the weeks before the fateful seminar — to check on what he was doing — as “sheer mean-spirited duplicity”. On the other hand, Miller explicitly points out Chandra's own prejudices and underhand dealings. In a letter to Léon Rosenfeld, Chandra explains how he added to one of his papers a reference to James Jeans, Eddington's arch-rival and the likeliest reviewer of the paper, in order to get the paper published. Miller quotes from Chandra's letter: “It is really sickening — these underhand methods, but what can one do?” Similarly, Miller points out that Chandra continued to complain bitterly that leading physicists never supported him against Eddington, despite the fact that Paul Dirac, Rudolf Peierls and Maurice Price wrote an important paper that backed him up.

On the sidewalks of the narration, one also picks up some interesting snippets, such as how the Nobel laureate Raman declared that there will be no astrophysicists within miles of Bangalore; or how Chandra decided to spend some time in America because of the “underhanded dealings going on in Indian scientific circles”; and why Robert Oppenheimer had a successful collaboration with Richard Tolman.

In summary, this is an entertaining and illuminating book about a key issue in contemporary astrophysics. The author is to be congratulated on producing an authoritative description in a manner that is so thoroughly enthralling.

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Padmanabhan, T. The dark side of astronomy. Nature 435, 20–21 (2005).

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