Empire of the Stars

During my week-end in Soverato I have spent some time reading this book. It was for me a good chance to enter into life of Subramanyan Chandrasekhar. I know him for being a great physicist and I have had the chance to read some of his works. He has been also a collaborator of Enrico Fermi and both produced a pair of relevant papers on magnetohydrodynamics. But my knowledge was rather superficial and I was not aware of the difficulties he met in obtaining his results widely known. He was a pioneer in our current understanding of star evolution and the emerging of singularities in space-time. The difficulties he met were mostly due to Arthur Eddington that employed all his scientific relevance to impede the emerging of this important result for reasons that today have lost any importance and were essentially wrong. This implied that almost forty years were needed before the relevance of Chandra work was generally acknowledged and he was awarded a Nobel prize for this reason in 1983.

We should be aware that this dynamics in the scientific community is still present. Planck used to say that a new idea becomes generally accepted when all the opponents are dead and the new generations are open to it. I think, but this is just my view, that the conservative reasoning is just an heritage of our struggle for surviving. Indeed, entering into a risky situation may happen if your idea is a failure while we know that old methods work so well. And still today communities at large maintain this view. The lucky case in physics is that a new concept cannot be stopped for too long. Scientific method implies that as soon as new experimental results become available, theory advances as well and some apparently questionable concepts may turn out to be the right description of the behavior of Nature. It is just a question of time but we are only humans and can happen that the discoverers of a right concept could be acknowledged late or too late in some cases.

The book has some wrong historical facts. The most blatant I have found was about Lev Landau. Landau was imprisoned by the brutal Stalinist government. Kapitza come in his rescue claiming that only him could solve the “superconductivity” problem he was experimenting on. Everyone well acquainted with history of physics knows that the word “superconductivty” should be changed into “superfluidity”. Explanation of superfluidity earned a Nobel prize to Landau in 1962. Superconductivty has another story. Finally, I have read the italian edition and some imprecisions into the translation can be found here and there. The most entertaining has been the translation of “naked singularities” (“singolarita’ palesi” to be translated as “manifest singularities”) and “duro come la roccia” (“hard like rock”) to indicate how strong is the core of e.g. a neutron star. For this latter expression I hope the author did not use a similar expression in english. I would like to know why italian editors do not ask to competent people for such translations.

Finally, I would not agree fully with the idea the author left to me about Chandra. A kind of angry and always unsatisfied man maybe due to the starting quarrel with Eddington that left an indelible sign for all his lifetime . Indeed, he obtained recognitions of his merit late in his life but indeed his life was great as a physicist both for his accomplishments and for people he happened to meet.

Just a note about LHC in the book. The author claims that one of the aims of this facility is to produce black holes! Maybe an update is needed in view of recent and less recent controversies.


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