Empire of the Stars by Arthur I Miller

Black holes in the heart
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This is essentially the story of a disagreement between two Cambridge scientists in 1935, about the ultimate fate of stars more massive than our Sun. The only reason the story is of any interest to anyone except astronomers and historians of science is that it involves black holes, and black holes continue to fascinate scientists and non-scientists alike. Arthur I Miller, himself a historian, plays the controversial aspects up for all they are worth.

In outline, the story is simple. The young Indian-born astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (always known to astronomers as Chandra) realised that a star slightly more massive than our Sun could not settle down as a so-called white dwarf at the end of its life, but must collapse, perhaps all the way down to a point, under its own weight. Arthur Eddington, the most senior and respected astrophysicist of the time, didn't believe him, and was quite rude about Chandra's work. So Chandra went off to the US, where he became one of the greatest astrophysicists of the next generation, and eventually received a Nobel Prize, largely for the work Eddington had sneered at. Meanwhile, other researchers had proved that white dwarfs must indeed collapse if they exceed the "Chandrasekhar limit" of mass, and may form either neutron stars or black holes.

The best part of Miller's book is his account of the way the story of black holes developed, from pioneers such as Robert Oppenheimer in the US and Lev Landau in the USSR up to the discovery that quasars are powered by black holes with masses millions of times that of our Sun. The history is slightly confused in places, but not enough for concern, and the story is enhanced by the focus on the characters. But it is not the core of his book.

The core story is also largely a matter of character. Chandra was by no means the only person Eddington poked fun at; Eddington had been born in 1882, invented the subject of astrophysics virtually single-handed, and was the prime mover in the English-speaking world in promoting the general theory of relativity. But by 1935 he was in his fifties, no longer producing great work, yet convinced that he knww better than anyone else and obsessed (as all too many great scientists become) with cranky pet theories of his own.

Chandra should have shrugged it all off, especially since the importance of his work was, as Miller points out, recognised by the European pioneers of quantum mechanics such as Heisenberg and Dirac. But Chandra was also a prickly man who took offence easily and felt, possibly rightly, that he suffered from anti-Indian prejudice in colonial Britain. As Miller tells us, even after his move to America, Chandra often felt hard done by, or overlooked for promotion, because of some Byzantine plot.

Not everyone would agree with the story as presented here. The late Sir William McCrea, who was present at the meeting where the row between Eddington and Chandra broke out, always used to say that Eddington had not behaved as badly as his critics suggested, and that the whole thing was something of a storm in a teacup. It is a pity that Miller's path seems never to have crossed that of McCrea.

A straightforward account of Chandra's life would make a fascinating biography, and include much of the history of 20th-century physics. But by focusing on his subject's earliest work and the story of black holes, Miller presents a lopsided account which probably would not have pleased Chandra. After all, Miller tells us that when Chandra received the Nobel Prize in 1983, he was angry that the citation singled out his work on white dwarfs while ignoring his many equally important later contributions. Miller's book does much the same thing; it is also unfortunate that Miller is not himself a scientist, and stumbles here and there when trying to explain phenomena such as quasars. The mathematically meticulous Chandra would have hated that.

Overall, the book is still informative, interesting and an easy read, although not always accurate, and can be recommended to anyone interested in the history of 20th-century astrophysics. But not to anyone looking for dark deeds of obsession and betrayal.

John Gribbin is the author of 'Science: A History' (Penguin)

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