Subhramanyan Chandrasekhar: Why winning the Nobel made him upset

The soot and dust was the origin of the problem. When the University of Chicago wanted to open their own observatory to become a leader in the field of astronomy, they had to select a location far away from their campus. Because Chicago’s soot and dust would not be a good place to see the space and stars from. And so, they opened the Yerkes observatory about 150km away from their campus – in the state of Wisconsin.

Subhramanyan Chandrasekhar opted to become a researcher at Yerkes Observatory in 1937 to continue with his research on stellar structures. As a young researcher, he was expected to teach a class. But unfortunately for him, his class was scheduled at the main campus in Chicago – 150km away from his work!

And what’s worse – only a handful of students signed up for his advanced astrophysics class. Other professors sniggered behind his back. Because people at the University prided themselves for having popular classes with high attendance. 

Everyone expected Chandrasekhar to simply cancel his class – especially because it was scheduled so far from where he lived and worked. And yet, Chandrasekhar continued. He drove 4 hours a day to go and teach the class. He didn’t even cancel during a snowstorm – and taught only 2 students on that day who had showed up!

Why would Chandrasekhar torture himself so?

Because he wanted to encourage everyone who showed interest. 

In 1930, Chandrasekhar was awarded the government of India scholarship to go to Cambridge and further his studies. While on the boat to Britain, Chandrasekhar thought of a theory on stars. The prevalent idea at the time was that when a star runs out of all its energy, it would become a white dwarf. On his voyage, Chandrasekhar combined quantum statistics with special relativity and theorized that if a star was bigger than 1.44 times the size of our sun, it could not remain at the stage of a white dwarf. Instead, it would continue to collapse on itself.

In 1935, when Chandrasekhar presented this idea after earning his phd, his idea was shredded to threads by his hero: Sir Arthur Eddington. The same Arthur Eddington who had taken photos of the solar eclipse in 1919 and verified Einstein’s theories – making Einstein world famous! Eddington called it the height of buffoonery and thrashed the idea in public. And even though no one could find a flaw in Chandrasekhar’s science, no one came to his defence.

That moment almost made Chandrasekhar quit science. It was a pivotal moment in his life. And it led to his desire to encourage anyone who showed keen interest. It was the reason why he drove 4 hours to teach a handful of students on a hard topic not many showed interest in!

The Nobel magnet

And do you know the funny thing? The only two students who had shown up in class during the snowstorm – Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang – ended up earning the Nobel prize in physics in 1957!

Do you know what’s even funnier? That 1930 theory earned Chandrasekhar himself a Nobel prize in physics in 1983 – 53 years after he thought of it! Because it was the theory that led to the notion of neutrinos and black holes. 

That small class had the highest ratio of participants to Nobel laureates the world has seen!

Upset on receiving the Nobel

Chandrasekhar was actually upset when he received the Nobel prize. Because it was for his very early work. He felt it made his lifetime of deep research seem unimportant. Because in those 53 years, he had earned 20 honorary degrees! He had gone to the deep ends of at least 5 different fields in astrophysics: everything from stellar structures to transfer of energy in space.

In fact, Chandrasekhar is known for changing fields every 10 years. 

1. Chandrasekhar would pick a topic that he could be good at. And exhaustively learn everything about it. He would write a series or papers as he learnt about the field . And at the end, he would write a book summarizing the major concepts in that field – before moving on to a new field. He believed that if you can’t teach the subject comprehensively, you’ve not understood it deep enough.

2. Chandrasekhar tried to merge ideas from different fields of physics. In fact, his theory on stars collapsing came because of his mixing of quantum statistics with special relativity! You can instantly reach the deep end of a new field by merging two fields uniquely.

Impact vs glory

The problem with deep study is that it does not always bring glory. The deeper you go into a field, the less popular it becomes. Because not everyone can understand it.

You can talk about the weather with any random person. But if you want to talk about how the shape of the clouds (nephology) can help predict how cold it will be tomorrow, you will find only a handful of people. As you go deep, the interest of the public wanes. And thats why, Chandrasekhar’s Nobel winning ideas were not given merit in 1935!

Masses lie at the shallow end. But breakthroughs occur at the deep. The popularity of a topic does not correlate with its importance. Only with the passage of time do enough people start understanding the impact of your deep work.

Action Summary:

  • Don’t be discouraged by the lack of praise or approval. Breakthrough lies at the depths of a topic, and not many people can understand it well enough to praise the work until much later.
  • To go to deep ends: 1. Learn exhaustively. 2. Merge ideas from multiple fields.