California Literary Review

Empire of the Stars by Arthur I. Miller

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June 10th, 2007 at 3:41 pm

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Empire of the Stars
by Arthur I. Miller
Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

The fault, dear Brutus…

Why does it continue to surprise us that scientists can be petty, jealous, and stingy? Adversarial nastiness is all but a given in the fields of politics, law, even invention, but the majesty of cool fact and precise measurement implies a level of fair play that should—we tell ourselves—override human pettiness.

Such is all too often not the case, however.

In Empire of the Stars, Arthur I. Miller, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at University College London and author of Insights of Genius and Einstein, Picasso, relates an unpleasant event in the early days of astrophysics, and the personalities and science that surrounded it.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar—known by all as “Chandra”—was a 24-year-old graduate student at Cambridge on January 30, 1935 when he gave a 30-minute lecture, ostensibly on white dwarf stars, at the Royal Astronomical Society. His talk included the suggestion that stars of a certain mass, when they burned out, might collapse forever—their gravitation so great that not even light could escape it. The notion had first occurred to him at the age of 19, when he mused on the implications of Einstein’s special theory of relativity aboard the ship that took him from his homeland of India to graduate study in England.

When Chandrasekhar finished his talk, the leading figure in British astrophysics rose and demolished the notion. “I think there should be a law of Nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way!” Sir Arthur Eddington told the gathering. In other words, Miller writes, the founder of modern astrophysics, and the man best situated to grasp Chandra’s theory, declared that if physics could posit such an incredible notion, then physics was wrong.

The concept of what we now call black holes was not utterly new; English natural philosopher John Michell first raised the idea of “dark stars” so powerful that their light could not escape in 1784, and French mathematician and scientist Pierre Simon de Laplace also raised the possibility independently in 1796.

The Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge since 1913, and the director the Cambridge Observatory, Eddington had explained Einstein’s relativity to the English scientific community and to the public in general texts still read today. In 1920 he guessed correctly that stars give off light energy because they burn hydrogen, and he first proposed the balance theory of stellar size: that stars stabilize at their given size for most of their lifetimes at the point where the inward pressure of gravity balances the outward pressure of gases and radiation. He also headed the team that observed light bending around the Sun during an eclipse—the first experimental proof of Einstein’s theory.

Eddington himself posed the notion of something akin to a black hole in 1926, in his book The Internal Constitution of Stars. A giant such as Betelgeuse, he wrote, twice the size of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, might generate a “force of gravitation . . . so great that light would be unable to escape from it, the rays falling back to the star like a stone to the Earth” when it collapsed. “The mass would produce so much curvature of [space] that space would close up around the star, leaving us outside (i.e. nowhere)….”

So why did Eddington savage his young colleague nine years later? Jealousy? Racism? A threat to his own work? The answer seems to have been a little of all these and more, but not one clearly more than the rest.

A problem Miller faces in telling this story, unfortunately, is that Eddington assiduously destroyed all his personal papers almost as soon as he finished with them. Apparently no one took detailed minutes of the meeting, so the event comes down to us through the partial memories of various participants. Then too, Miller (or his publisher) tries to make Eddington’s humiliation of a bright young Indian colleague the fulcrum of the story, so that, for one thing, the “climax” of the tale is over with the first chapter, and for another, it strikes one as something of an anticlimax.

True, for the next nine years Eddington took further opportunities to ridicule Chandra and the concept of singularities (where all the matter in a giant collapsed star concentrates at an infinitely shrinking point), and it would be nearly 50 years before Chandrasekhar won the Nobel his work deserved. However, the two men remained professionally cordial: Chandra wrote to his older colleague regularly, and Eddington supported the Indian astrophysicist’s nomination to the Royal Society in 1944.

More important, Eddington’s ridicule did not utterly destroy Chandra’s career: not a few of Chandra’s peers, especially in other countries, acknowledged and even accepted his theories within a few years of the debacle at the Royal Astronomical Society, although almost none of them in England was willing to stand up to Eddington on the matter. (This is a tale of herd politics and cowardice among scientists as much as of bullying.) Miller acknowledges that Chandra himself is not above reproach. He held grudges, never forgot a slight, and tended to minimize in memory the quiet support he had received from peers.

Miller notes the ironies of the two men’s backgrounds—the “humble Indian” scientist came from a family of highly-educated men and women of science and letters (his mother translated Ibsen into Tamil; an uncle won the Nobel in 1930), while the haughty Cambridge don was born a Quaker and raised by a single mother following his father’s death when the boy was only two—but no one really comes alive in his hands. Chandrasekhar’s wife, Lalitha, a physics graduate herself who married Chandra for love and devoted her life to his career, was apparently still alive to give Miller background but remains largely a shadowy figure in this drama.

In sum, as Miller himself writes, “This book is the biography of an idea rather than of a man.” That is its strength, for non-scientific readers who have not fully grasped the basics of stellar evolution (or enjoy being reminded of them periodically), and how they relate to the structure of nuclear bombs, whose “necessity” in World War II and the Cold War thereafter were partly responsible for bringing Chandra’s theories the wider attention they should have enjoyed long before.

Miller takes the reader through the breakthroughs and wrong turns made by various scientists as they developed particle physics and cosmology in the first half of the twentieth century: the discovery of atomic neutrons, electron spin, and the development of a bomb that mimics that machinery of stars. We briefly meet many of the colorful celebrities and spear handlers of that voyage: Ralph Fowler, Henry Norris Russell, Edward Milne, Niels Bohr, Sir James Jeans, George Gamow, Lev Landau, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Teller. There’s also a helpful listing of the cast of characters and a ten-page glossary of physics and astronomy terms in the back.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story is not Chandra’s humiliation in 1935 and subsequent lonely career, but Eddington’s pathetically comical search, after so many milestone discoveries, for a “fundamental theory” of everything that led to an obsession with the “seven primitive constants of physics,” the number 137 and its connections to Kabbalah, and an attempt to calculate the total number of electrons and protons in the universe! In this pursuit, he fudged equations, introduced false figures, and fooled with Einstein’s theory to get the results he wanted. Eddington became increasingly isolated from his colleagues (which included Chandra, still corresponding respectfully), and died in 1944 of a large stomach tumor that went too long undetected because of his preoccupations and a delay in medical examination due to war casualties being given first priority.

Chandra, on the other hand, found academic refuge in the U.S. at the Yerkes Observatory and Chicago University, eventually received his Nobel, and lived until 1995. So who was ultimately worse off after that weakly fateful 1935 collision between the two men? If anything, Eddington betrayed himself more than he did Chandra.

Empire of the Stars is a solid, if perhaps not stellar, piece of work.

  • marilyn head

    Kia ora David,
    Really enjoyed your review of Empire of the stars – much my own reaction though I would give it 2 1/2 to 3 because there were so many mistakes!! It’s good to read something that isn’t fawning. I am reviewing this and Marcus Chowns latest book which is wildly speculative and not particularly well written I think, but I note that the reviews are adulatory which was just as I feared.
    cheers Marilyn
    marilyn

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