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Arthur Stanley Eddington and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 29 July 2004

Sir Arthur Eddington was the most distinguished British astrophysicist in the 1930s. He had found experimental proof of Einstein's theory of relativity during a solar eclipse and he had worked out what goes on inside stars.

Subramanyan Chandrasekhar was a young brilliant Indian physicist who had a theory explaining what happens to stars when their nuclear fuel runs out. His calculations showed that if a star was large enough it literally collapsed into nothing, but paradoxically a nothing of huge mass and gravitational pull. In other words, this is what we now call a black hole.

In this edition of Test Tubes and Tantrums, William Hartston tells the story of the row that exploded on a cold January day in 1935 between Eddington and Chandrasekhar. It was over the death of stars. Eddington vehemently disagreed with his young Cambridge colleague and ridiculed him at a meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society. He said Chandrasekhar's ideas were "stellar buffoonery". Eddington thought stars ended their lives as lumps of metal called white dwarves.

The result of the dispute was that the science of astronomy was put on hold for thirty years. Chandrasekhar was hurt and left Cambridge University for the United States . He also changed his topic of research and it was three decades before his theory was proved right. Eddington died in 1944 and never retracted his attack on Chandrasekhar.

William Hartston discusses this dispute with Arthur Miller, Professor of the History of Science at University College , London , and author of a forthcoming book on the row, Dr Simon Mitton of St Edmund's College, Cambridge University , and Peter Coles, Professor of Astrophysics at Nottingham University.


William Hartston
Deborah Cohen


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