Discovering black holes

Massive Black Hole (Photo: ESA/Getty Images).
Massive Black Hole (Photo: ESA/Getty Images).

By Amit Roy

SINCE black holes are in the news, it is worth pointing out that the first person to conceive of them was an Indian young man of 19 on the sea journey from Bombay to the UK in 1930.

Subrahmanyan Chan­drasekhar was on his way to take up a place as a postgraduate stu­dent at Trinity College, Cambridge.

I mention Chandra’s discovery because the Nobel Prize for Physics this year has been shared by three people, includ­ing Roger Penrose of Ox­ford University, for their work on black holes.

I was told of Chandra in 2005 by Arthur I Miller, professor of the History and Philosophy of Sci­ence at University Col­lege London, when I in­terviewed him about his book, Empire of the Stars: Friendship, Obsession and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes.

The way Chandra was treated by the brilliant Cambridge astro-physicist, Sir Arthur Stanley Ed­dington, was very cruel.

Eddington urged Chandra to reveal his thoughts on black holes at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, but then tore him apart and humiliated him after he had done so. Eddington and others were convinced that all stars either blew them­selves into smithereens or shrank until they be­came dense, “white dwarfs”, small but solid.

Chandra’s radical no­tion was that a massive dying star “kept on col­lapsing and collapsing and collapsing” into a black hole which sucked in light and time and eve­rything around it so that nothing could escape. It was rather like bath water disappearing down a plug hole.

It took Chandra many years to recover his confi­dence after Eddington’s mauling. He made a new life in Chicago and was awarded the Physics No­bel Prize in 1983.

Miller told me that on black holes, Chandra was proved right and Edding­ton wrong, but it took 40 years for this to happen.