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Chandra: The Man Behind the Science

Mercury Spring 2011 Table of Contents

by Nalini Easwar

Chandra Vilas in Madras

Chandra Vilas in Madras, where Chandra and his nine siblings grew up. The bay room on the second floor is where Chandra used to study. Chandra Vilas family collection.

As October 10, 2010 approached, excitement, inspiration, and pride swept over the members of Chandra's family. It was 100 years since the birth of their beloved Ayya Mama or Periappa (as he was referred to by his 33 nieces and nephews).

A series of events were held in India and at the University of Chicago to mark Chandra's birth centenary. The family came together to also collect pictures and share essays about their inter-actions and memories of Chandra. HarperCollins (India) recently published a collection of essays called S. Chandra, Man of Science. To commemorate Chandra's birth centenary, I invited Dick White, Professor Emeritus at Smith College, to talk on Chandra and his contributions to theoretical astrophysics. This shared experience inspired us to write these paired articles.

In 1918 Chandra's family moved from Lahore, his birthplace, to Madras (now called Chennai). Chandra and his nine siblings grew up in their home, "Chandra Vilas" ("Abode of the Moon"). His grandfather, after whom he was named, was a mathematics teacher with a wide collection of classic math texts. One text that stayed in Chandra's possession was Maxime Bocher's Introduction to Higher Algebra. According to his father, the book "put him in the way of the study of higher mathematics and its applications to problems in mathematical physics." Chandra's father was himself a musician and an avid reader of literature, and he owned a vast library that lined the walls of Chandra Vilas. This erudite environment fostered Chandra's love of literature and music in parallel.


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