by Ashutosh Jogalekar
Scientific ideas can have a life of their own. They can be forgotten, lauded or reworked into something very different from their creators’ original expectations. Personalities and peccadilloes and the unexpected, buffeting currents of history can take scientific discoveries in very unpredictable directions. One very telling example of this is provided by a paper that appeared in the September 1, 1939 issue of the “Physical Review”, the leading American journal of physics.
The paper had been published by J. Robert Oppenheimer and his student, Hartland Snyder, at the University of California at Berkeley. Oppenheimer was then a 35-year-old professor and had been teaching at Berkeley for ten years. He was widely respected in the world of physics for his brilliant mind and remarkable breadth of interests ranging from left-wing politics to Sanskrit. He had already made important contributions to nuclear and particle physics. Over the years Oppenheimer had collected around him a coterie of talented students. Hartland Snyder was regarded as the best mathematician of the group.
Oppenheimer and Snyder’s paper was titled “On Continued Gravitational Contraction”. It tackled the question of what happens when a star runs out of the material whose nuclear reactions make it shine. It postulated a bizarre, wondrous, wholly new object in the universe that must be created when massive stars die. Today we know that object as a black hole. Oppenheimer and Snyder’s paper was the first to postulate it (although an Indian physicist named Bishveshwar Datt had tackled a similar case before without explicitly considering a black hole). The paper is now regarded as one of the seminal papers of 20th century physics.
But when it was published, it sank like a stone. Read more »