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A brilliant Nobel-winning skeptic

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Screen Shot 2022 08 17 at 3.00.02 PM A brilliant Nobel-winning skeptic

The coming weekend is the death anniversary of someone who is my all-time favorite teen in history.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in 1910 in Lahore (now Pakistan) where his father was an Indian railway official. His uncle was physicist C.V. Raman, who won a Nobel Prize.

In that era, white dwarf stars had newly been discovered. They were amazing bodies: Old stars collapsed by gravity until they were no larger than planet Earth. Their matter was unbelievably heavy — 10,000 times denser than steel, weighing 10 tons per thimbleful. They seemed almost inconceivable.

After attracting notice as a brilliant science student, young Chandrasekhar won an Indian government scholarship to Cambridge University. During the boat trip to England, at age 19, he pondered equations for the ultradense matter inside white dwarfs.

Other physicists had speculated that resistance by compressed electrons oppose the crush of gravity and stabilize a white dwarf at Earth-size. But Chandrasekhar’s calculations reached a stunning conclusion: If the mass of a collapsing star is more than 1.4 times the mass of our sun, gravity will overwhelm electron resistance. The larger star will continue collapsing.

The teenager’s findings were published and became known as the Chandrasekhar Limit. Other scientists scoffed at his theory. The great astronomer Arthur Eddington publicly declared that laws of nature would “prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.”

But Eddington was wrong. Like many aging scientists, he was locked into past beliefs, unable to accept new concepts. Younger geniuses eventually would surpass him. (An old wisecrack says that science advances funeral by funeral.)

In ensuing decades, astrophysicists discovered that Chandrasekhar had unlocked something incredible: As larger stars collapse, electrons are squeezed into protons to form solid masses of neutrons. The substance of a neutron star weighs an astounding 10 million tons per thimbleful. And still-larger stars collapse into unthinkable black holes that defy comprehension.

Chandrasekhar became a professor at the University of Chicago, where he pursued many venues of physics. In 1983 — a half-century late — he was given a Nobel Prize for his teenage breakthrough. (When reporters came to tell him the Nobel news, he said he must hurry to class. But he wasn’t teaching the class; he was a student in it, in his 70s.) He died on Aug. 21, 1995, at age 84.

Although raised a Hindu, Chandrasekhar scoffed at supernatural religion. In public discussions, he said: “I am not religious in any sense. In fact, I consider myself an atheist. … I can characterize myself definitely as an atheist.”

He fit a well-known pattern: A large number of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, scientists, writers, philosophers, democracy reformers and others called “great” cannot accept magical gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles and other religious dogmas.

When I’ve seen brilliant teens at the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia’s mountains during many summers, I’ve looked at their keen faces and wondered how many will make breakthroughs. They share Chandrasekhar’s spirit of wonder and intense inquiry. They’re inspiring.

Today’s teens are tomorrow’s citizens and leaders. It would be splendid if more of them could follow the purpose-driven life of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason. This column has been adapted from a piece originally written for the fall 2015 issue of Free Inquiry.

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