An American Dream Fulfilled: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

From the time of this nation’s birth, immigrants have crossed over to America’s shores in the pursuit of new lives built with hard work, determination, and ingenuity. Their immense contributions are part of the very fabric of this country. To highlight the incredible talent and diversity that immigrants have brought to our land over hundreds of years, MurthyDotCom periodically will be highlighting the life of a notable immigrant who has left a lasting mark on history. The latest entry in our continuing An American Dream Fulfilled series is Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

Born in 1910, in the city of Lahore in the Punjab province of British India (now Pakistan), Chandrasekhar was the son of intellectual parents who encouraged his interest in science from an early age. After a home education during his formative years, he attended high school and then college near Madras (which has since been renamed Chennai). He then received a graduate study scholarship to the University of Cambridge in England, where he went on to also earn a PhD in physics.

While at Cambridge, Chandrasekhar enjoyed his first period of professional success after publishing a series of papers between 1931 to 1935 that discuss what has come to be known as the “Chandrasekhar limit,” which he calculated to be the maximum mass of a stable white dwarf star. His discovery had important implications for several areas of physics, including the study of supernovas and black holes. However, it was initially rejected by several notable members of the scientific community at the time, including Albert Einstein. Disappointed by the rebuff of his colleagues at Cambridge, in 1937, Chandrasekhar accepted a teaching position at the University of Chicago, where he would remain for the rest of his nearly sixty-year career.

Chandrasekhar blossomed in the United States, where he contributed to research at NASA and the Ballistic Research Laboratories at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953, his working life encompassed a wide variety of scientific concentrations. During the middle of the 20th century he immersed himself in the study of hydrodynamics, then diverted his attention to equilibrium and general relativity during the 1960s. The later part of his career, in the late 1980s, was focused on black holes and gravitational waves. Although he accepted the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983, he was dismayed that the prize was awarded for his early work in the field rather than his lifetime body of work. He died in 1995 at the age of 84 and was survived by his wife Lalitha, whom he had met during his studies in British India.

Though he may not be a household name, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar has made indelible contributions to the world of science. While his groundbreaking concept of the Chandrasekhar limit was at first rejected by his peers, it has since become a fundamental element of the study of physics. His lifelong devotion to several diverse areas of research produced important discoveries until the end of his life. It is perhaps no accident that Chandrasekhar’s career accelerated when he made the U.S. his adopted home. By crossing over to these shores, he was able to harness the full power of his dedication and ingenuity to achieve his version of the American dream. [See Important Scientists: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar,]


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