Battle for the black hole

Arthur I Miller recounts a historic clash between an Indian student and the world’s top astrophysicist in The Guardian:

It began when an Indian student called Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (Chandra) decided to work out what would happen if Einstein’s special theory of relativity was applied to the processes that went on inside stars. Pencil in hand, 19-year-old Chandra did some calculations. At the time, scientists assumed that when a star burned up the last of its fuel, it would turn into a ball of cinders and go cold – become a white dwarf star. Chandra’s mathematics showed that a white dwarf much heavier than the sun could not exist, but would undergo an eternal collapse into a tiny point of infinite density, until it slipped though a crevice in space and time, from which nothing could escape, not even light. It was the first irrefutable mathematical proof that black holes – as they were later dubbed – had to exist. His uncle, CV Raman, had been the first Indian to win the Nobel prize in physics. Chandra hoped that he might win one too.

At Cambridge his hopes were dashed. Scientists there ignored his discovery. Cast down by the dank fens and dreary weather, utterly unlike the welcoming warmth of south India, he gave way to depression. But he pressed on and in 1933, completed his doctorate. He also won a fellowship to continue his work at Cambridge. Buoyed by these successes, he returned to his research on the fate of the stars. To his surprise the great Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, doyen of the astrophysical world, took to visiting him frequently to see how he was getting on.

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