Fortean Times, Summer 2005 (issue 200)

Empire of the Stars
Friendship, Obsessions and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes
Arthur I Miller
Little, Brown, 2005
Hb, ppxvi+400, gloss, notes, index, ISBN 0 316 72555 2

This is an excellent account of the ugly fallout that happens when a new idea runs up against the established wisdom. In this case, the new idea came from Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, familiarly known as Chandra, a promising young physicist from India who came to Cambridge in 1930. His idea was that a dying star, if massive enough, would not just shrink to an inert white dwarf, but could collapse to virtually nothing – an ultra-dense body from which not even light could escape or, as it was later dubbed, a black hole. The conventional wisdom was embodied by Britain's foremost astrophysicist, Arthur Eddington, who simply refused to countenance such a ridicuous concept; not least because it would condemn his own fundamental theory which he believed could unite the emerging fields of relativity and quantum physics.

The clash between the two men boiled over at a 1935 meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. Chandra presented his latest work, which he believed solved a problem first highlighted in Eddington's own research on white dwarfs. Eddington, in return, publicly humiliated the young Indian, ignoring the scientific argument in favour of withering rhetoric. The audience, even those researchers who generally supported Chandra, fell in line behind the elder statesman of the science.

The refusal to accept Chandra's conclusions hindered the progress of astrophysics for four decades, Miller argues. The first half of his book examines the continuing relationship between the two men, during one of the most exciting periods in physics as the insights offered by relativity and quantum theory were applied to the universe at large. Eddington emerges as a brilliant but flawed character, with a history of demolishing people he disagreed with. In a touch reminiscent of much modern biography, Miller suggests Eddington's repressed homosexuality may have been a factor in his aggressiveness – and in Chandra's case, there may also have been an element of colonial racism. Intriguingly, Eddington also developed a fascination with the number 137, which he believed of Kabbalistic as well as physical significance. For his part, Chandra took a long to time to settle to life in the West and had a troubled relationship with his family in India; and was himself not entirely innocent of aggressive behaviour when his ideas were challenged.

The second half places the feud into the wider context of 20th century research in astronomical and nuclear physics – many of the key players found themselves working on the atomic bomb research during WWII. Chandra's controversial ideas were gradually vindicated by observation, and became themselves the accepted wisdom. Chandra was rewarded with a Nobel in 1983 and, four years after his death in 1995, gave his name to the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory.

This is an excellent account of both the personal and scientific stories behind a classic example of the obduracy of the established wisdom when faced with a inconvenient idea. It's an engrossing and enlightening read, and not just for physicists.