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

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

by Arthur I. Miller

In August 1930, on a voyage from Madras to London, a young Indian looked up at the stars and contemplated their fate. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar--Chandra, as he was called--calculated that certain stars would suffer a strange and violent death, collapsing to virtually nothing. This extraordinary claim, the first mathematical description of black holes, brought


In August 1930, on a voyage from Madras to London, a young Indian looked up at the stars and contemplated their fate. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar--Chandra, as he was called--calculated that certain stars would suffer a strange and violent death, collapsing to virtually nothing. This extraordinary claim, the first mathematical description of black holes, brought Chandra into direct conflict with Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the greatest astrophysicists of the day. Eddington ridiculed the young man's idea at a meeting of the Royal Astronomy Society in 1935, sending Chandra into an intellectual and emotional tailspin--and hindering the progress of astrophysics for nearly forty years.
Empire of the Stars is the dramatic story of this intellectual debate and its implications for twentieth-century science. Arthur I. Miller traces the idea of black holes from early notions of "dark stars" to the modern concepts of wormholes, quantum foam, and baby universes. In the process, he follows the rise of two great theories--relativity and quantum mechanics--that meet head on in black holes. Empire of the Stars provides a unique window into the remarkable quest to understand how stars are born, how they live, and, most portentously (for their fate is ultimately our own), how they die.
It is also the moving tale of one man's struggle against the establishment--an episode that sheds light on what science is, how it works, and where it can go wrong. Miller exposes the deep-seated prejudices that plague even the most rational minds. Indeed, it took the nuclear arms race to persuade scientists to revisit Chandra's work from the 1930s, for the core of a hydrogen bomb resembles nothing so much as an exploding star. Only then did physicists realize the relevance, truth, and importance of Chandra's work, which was finally awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983.
Set against the waning days of the British Empire and taking us right up to the present, this sweeping history examines the quest to understand one of the most forbidding phenomena in the universe, as well as the passions that fueled that quest over the course of a century.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Empire of the Stars dramatically succeeds in conveying the clash of scientific ideas and the personal conflicts underlying Chandrasekhar's remarkable anticipation of the existence of black holes in our universe. This is a story that needed to be told." --Roger Penrose, author of The Road to Reality and The Emperor's New Mind

"Arthur I. Miller, for so long the doyen of historians of modern science, has surpassed himself with this brilliant, elegantly written book. It is a profound story of friendship, disappointment and hope filled with truly remarkable characters; the narrative is also enormously broad in its scope, crossing continents and exploring questions at the heart of our understanding of the universe: What are black holes? Where do they come from? What do they mean?" --David Bodanis, author of Electric Universe and E=mc2

"Impressively well researched account of a fascinating and complex relationship between two of the giants of 20th-century science." --Marcus Chown, New Scientist

"Cosmological politics makes for spellbinding dramas. . .page-turning." --George Johnson The New York Times Book Review

"Weaves two stories into one, making this scientific chronicle read like a novel." --Scientific American

"Lively and exciting. . .The book is so beautifully written that I read it in one sitting." --Thanu Padmanabhan Nature

"Impressively well researched account of a fascinating and complex relationship between two of the giants of 20th-century science." --Marcus Chown, New Scientist

George Johnson
It is risky to start a book with its climax, as Miller has done, opening with the confrontation at the Astronomical Society meeting. But the strategy works. Immediately the reader is set to wondering why Eddington, usually a fearless thinker, would so vehemently reject black holes. Even more exasperating is the obsequiousness of his colleagues, who dared not say publicly what they confided to friends, that Eddington was wrong. By the time the story is over, Miller reveals the reasons, which have as much to do with psychology as with the abstractions of modern physics.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In 1935, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a young Indian astrophysicist studying at Cambridge, presented to the Royal Astronomical Society a radical new theory of what would later be called black holes. Cambridge's leading astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, who lorded over British scientific circles at the time, ridiculed Chandra's findings as stellar buffoonery, and while Chandra later established himself at the University of Chicago and in 1980 received a Nobel Prize, this humiliation at Eddington's hands haunted him until his death in 1995. Miller's story is not only about Chandra's discovery but the end run that physicists made around it to confirm the existence of black holes, with both Eddington and Chandra disappearing for long stretches. Miller, a British historian of science (Einstein, Picasso), doesn't persuasively make his case that the course of 20th-century physics would have been significantly different if Chandra's findings hadn't been ignored, but he does paint vivid portraits of the scientists in this quest, the racism Chandra encountered at Cambridge, the internal battles between Eddington and other astrophysicists into which Chandra inserted himself with his theory and both the excitement and despair a brilliant scientist experienced. Astronomy buffs and readers fascinated by the history of science will find this a compelling read. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Nann du Sautoy, U.K. (Apr. 25) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When relativity theory and quantum physics began duking it out, black holes caused some of the biggest nosebleeds. Here's how Indian mathematician Chandra, scorned after he calculated the existence of black holes in 1930, finally got the last laugh. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Astrophysicists are people, too. And that's not always a good thing. Such was the harsh lesson learned by 20-year-old prodigy Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar-known as Chandra-when on Jan. 11, 1935, he rose before the august Royal Astronomical Society in London to announce his discovery that certain oversized stars would inexorably collapse into themselves to the point of nothingness. The young Indian graduate student expected to be lauded for his achievement. Instead, the most renowned British astrophysicist of the day, Sir Arthur Eddington, who had been Chandra's inspiration and mentor, promptly ridiculed the finding, setting off a feud with the stunned Chandra that effectively halted his work on the subject for 40 years. In this scholarly, richly footnoted story, Miller (History and Philosophy of Science/University College, London; Einstein, Picasso, 2002) focuses on Chandra's long struggle to overcome the setback of Eddington's attack. (Chandra was later recruited by Enrico Fermi to the faculty at the University of Chicago, and in 1983 he received the Nobel Prize.) But in the process, he also introduces us to astrophysics research from the 1930s to the present, and to the often prickly, turf-guarding scientists behind them. The portraits of Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr, along with many others, are fascinating as we follow their gaze from the stars deep in space to the microcosmos of atomic particles. Their realization that the answers to the life and death of stars could be found in the protons and electrons of the atom led to breathtaking discoveries-finally affirming Chandra's theory on "black holes" as well as on the creation of the atomic and hydrogen bombs.Chandra himself chafed throughout his life under the prejudice he suffered as a nonwhite scientist. Despite a generous index of biographical sketches, a glossary of scientific terms, and copious footnotes, this is still dense reading, aimed more at the scientifically inclined than the general reader. The rewards for the diligent, however, are many and profound.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt


Or, if there were a sympathy in choice, War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it, Making it momentary as a sound, Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say, “Behold!” The jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion.
—William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act I, Scene 1)

EVER SINCE the evocative term “black hole” was coined in 1967, these mysterious voids in the universe have assumed an almost mystical appeal. The attraction of a vast emptiness that imprisons not only matter but also light is quite literally inescapable.
Imagine that you are an astronaut, seduced by the grandeur of a black hole into straying too close.
Trapped by its immense gravitational field and the tornado-like swirling of space around it, you sweep feet first over the horizon. As you fall, what you see is truly awesome. Just before you slip over the edge, the whole universe of stars and galaxies appears to rush together into one bright spot. The intense gravity of the black hole funnels the light from distant objects into a tighter and tighter cone, like tunnel vision. All the while you are entranced by the fireworks display of atoms snared by the black hole’s immense gravity. They dance in a cosmic traffic jam, bumping into each together, becoming hotter and hotter until they blaze with the brightness of a million Suns as they stray too close and plunge with you into nowhere. Then you start to feel the irresistible attraction of the collapsed star deep inside, at once unimaginably small and infinitely dense. As the collapsed star sucks you deeper into the black hole, the gravitational pull grows stronger and stronger. You stretch like a piece of toffee, longer and longer and thinner and thinner, until you are torn apart. The potent gravitational force around the black hole means that light takes longer and longer to reach distant observers. They see you poised on the edge of the black hole, frozen in space and time forever.
A black hole is a well in space, the final resting place of a collapsed star. For decades, scientists resisted the very idea as a theoretical freak that couldn’t actually exist, an ugly solution to the most beautiful theory ever created, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But astronomers now know that the universe is littered with these monsters and that a giant black hole sits at the center of our own galaxy. What’s more, we can actually observe black holes by detecting the x-rays emitted by particles as they spiral in toward the event horizon before plummeting in.
Having taken their place in our picture of the fabric of nature, black holes have opened our minds to staggering and sometimes frightening speculation: are they spawning baby universes, of which ours may be but one? Might they open a shortcut to a distant part of the universe or even be portals for time travel? How might we devise an experiment to create a black hole in a laboratory here on Earth?
Many scientists now believe that black holes hold the key to understanding how our universe has evolved and how nature behaves at its most extreme. At the very edge of space and time black holes are the engines that power quasars, the brightest objects in the universe, brighter than a trillion Suns. Black holes have pushed our knowledge of the cosmos to its limits.
Black holes may ultimately reveal the microstructure of matter and the fate of the universe itself. For in these gravitational plugholes, atoms are crushed into their basic building blocks and possibly even crushed right out of existence. Here the two great scientific theories of the twentieth century—general relativity, which describes the world of the very large, and quantum mechanics, which describes the very small—meet head on, and the laws of physics as we know them may break down completely.

In recounting the epic story of the discovery of black holes, Empire of the Stars is a window through which we can glimpse humankind’s remarkable quest to understand how stars are born, live, and die, and the way in which this knowledge has profoundly altered our scientific and cultural views of the world. It is the story of one man’s fight with the scientific establishment for recognition of his idea—an episode that sheds light on what science is, how it works, and where it can go wrong.
Fascinated by the stars from time immemorial, we have come to belieeve that their fate is ultimately ours. What is so extraordinary about the early research into the life history of stars is that it consisted almost purely of theoretical speculation, the imaginings of scientists who had the confidence to make grandiose assssssumptions about some of the largest objects ever known. With only meager experimental data on stellar evolution, scientists were forced to play God. Their biggest assumption was that the science discovered by humans, who are the accidental products of the stars and a tiny fraction of the age of the universe, could be used to explore the evolution of stars thousands of trillions of miles distant, from their birth some billions of years ago to their deaths untold billions of years in the future.
What breathtaking chutzpah that was!
Tracing the story of those pioneering astrophysicists is an intellectual adventure, with twists and turns that will take us into the deepest realms of theoretical science, the designs for manufacturing hydrogen bombs, and the effect of the arms race on astrophysical research. The story also sheds light on the epic conflict between the concepts of classical and modern science embodied in the vastly different outlooks of physicists and astrophysicists and the clash of cultures at the twilight of the British Empire in the 1930s. All this led to a forty-year delay before the notion of black holes was finally accepted, by which time just about everyone had forgotten the role played by the man who had originally provided clear-cut evidence for their existence.
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s flash of inspiration came when he was an unknown nineteen-year-old in the hot summer of 1930. In ten minutes, sitting in a deck chair overlooking the Arabian Sea, Chandra (as he was universally known) carried out some calculations that augured a disturbing fate for the small, dense stars known as white dwarfs. At the time scientists assumed that white dwarfs were dead stars in their final resting state. Those that had been found had more or less the mass of the Sun but were no bigger than Earth. Chandra’s calculations showed that there was an upper limit to the mass of these white dwarfs. Any star more massive than that when it burned out would not end its life as an inert rock but would begin an endless process of collapse, crunched by its own gravity into a singularity—a minuscule point of in- finite density and zero volume, many trillions of times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence and many trillions of times denser than Earth.
Only one person understood the full implications of Chandra’s discovery: Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, the greatest astrophysicist in the world at that time. Eddington himself had flirted with the idea that a dead star might collapse indefinitely in this manner, so he should have been delighted with Chandra’s mathematical verification. Instead, without any warning, he used a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society to savage Chandra’s result cynically and unmercifully. The encounter cast a shadow over the lives of both men and hindered progress in astrophysics for nearly half a century.

As a teenager I read Eddington and was sufficiently taken by his writings to want to become a scientist. Although I didn’t understand much of what he described, it all sounded exciting. The sheer sweep of the subject matter— from atoms to the life and death of stars—was breathtaking, the language vivid and gripping.
Chandra’s writings were inspiring in another way. They exemplified how a superbly gifted scientist could use mathematics to study the nature of the stars. The more I discovered about Chandra’s story, the more intriguing it became. For all his brilliance, his life was tinged with tragedy. After Eddington refused to take his idea seriously and subjected him to public ridicule, Chandra never really regained his confidence. Despite a long and incredibly productive scientific career, no amount of recognition could ever satisfy him. I wondered what other great discoveries he might have made, had his early life not been blighted by disappointment. By all accounts he was a reserved, deeply private, and highly serious man. Who was the real man behind that stern façade?
And what of Eddington? Why did the greatest astrophysicist in the world choose to demolish the youthful Indian in such a vicious way? Eddington, famous for his sharp tongue, was harsh and cynical with other scientists, too. But with Chandra, Eddington’s criticisms took on a different and darker tinge.
By the time I met Chandra, he was eighty-three. The occasion was a conference on creativity at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, where Chandra was to give the keynote lecture.
The ballroom-sized auditorium was filled to capacity. There was a buzz of excitement as a distinguished- looking Indian man walked through the massive double doors. Here was a Nobel laureate, one of the most important scientists of the age, who had come to address the audience on matters of high scientific creativity. Despite his slight figure, he was a man of great presence. Elegantly dressed and no more than five feet six in height, he carried himself with dignity, though his shoulders were beginning to stoop. His sparse white hair was carefully combed across the top of his still handsome dark face, with its prominent forehead, piercing eyes, and full mouth clamped tight in an expression of iron determination.
As he spoke, he looked up from his notes from time to time to reminisce with obvious delight about great scientists of the past whom he had known. The audience was spellbound.
Afterward I was able to exchange a few words with him and shake his hand.
It was a thrilling moment. This man, who had transformed our understanding of the heavens, had been a great inspiration to me throughout my life. He spoke of the book he was writing on his intellectual hero, Isaac Newton, and of the recent exciting discoveries that had been made researching black holes. Thoughtlessly, I mentioned the Eddington episode—and his face clouded. He graciously shook my hand, and we agreed to speak again.
Later reports of the altercation with Eddington claim that Chandra rapidly put it behind him and that the two men were actually firm friends. But even a cursory glance at Eddington’s scientific articles and the correspondence between the two reveals a very different story. Again and again Chandra expressed deep anger, frustration, and resentment, while Eddington clung stubbornly to his own view of the universe, ridiculing Chandra’s discovery as “stellar buffoonery.”1 Chandra never missed an opportunity to recount the events of that fateful day at the Royal Astronomical Society, emphasizing that he had been right and Eddington wrong, even though Eddington refused ever to admit it. He was always careful to speak in glowing terms about Eddington the man.
But in interviews he revealed how profoundly he had suffered from Eddington’s treatment of him.
After that memorable meeting in 1993, I continued to puzzle over Chandra’s complex, tragic story. A couple of years ago I decided to explore it more deeply. Sadly, by that time Chandra was dead. But I was fortunate enough to meet Lalitha, his devoted wife of over fifty years. I also interviewed many of his colleagues, some of whom had studied under him. In Bangalore I met his cousin, the eminent astrophysicist V. Radhakrishnan, son of Chandra’s uncle, C. V. Raman, India’s first Nobel laureate in physics. From their recollections and from letters and documents that Chandra and, later, Lalitha deposited at the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library, little by little the real Chandra—the man behind the persona he built up around himself— began to emerge.
An important step in getting to know Chandra was to experience the tropical heat and dust of South India, where he was born and lived until he finished his undergraduate schooling at Presidency College in Madras (now Chennai), at the age of nineteen. There I walked across the burning sands of the Marina, the long beach that edges Chennai. In Chandra’s time it was elegant and fashionable. He would cycle there in the evenings with his brothers to escape the stifling heat and gaze in wonder at the brilliant stars. As he recalled in a letter to his brother Balakrishnan, he sometimes went alone to the silent beach to fling himself on the sand and pray to God that he could be another Einstein.
Chandra’s work lay dormant for more than three decades, to be looked at anew only when an entirely different development in world affairs— the race to design the hydrogen bomb—sparked renewed interest in the possibility of black holes. The explosive power that the scientists were looking for turned out to be the very same power that had created these massive holes in space, and the universe itself. Chandra and his discovery returned to their proper place at the forefront of scientific endeavor. Toward the end of his life, he received a Nobel Prize for his achievement. But he did not feel vindicated, for his achievement had been virtually ignored for almost forty years.
This book is the biography of an idea rather than of a man. Nevertheless, science is a human endeavor, driven by hopes, dreams, and aspirations. At the highest level, scientists are playing for the highest stakes. They may be brilliant, even geniuses.
But as human beings they may also be seriously flawed, as both Chandra and Eddington were.
Copyright © 2005 by Arthur I. Miller. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

STUART MILLER is a fourth-generation Brooklynite and a contributingwriter for the Sporting News. His sportswriting has appeared inSports Illustrated, the New York Times, Sports Business Journal, andStreet & Smith's annual sports issues. He is also the author of a bookon football, Where Have All Our Giants Gone?

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