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Chandrasekhar: the Most Distinguished Astrophysicist of his Time

Mercury Spring 2011 Table of Contents

by Richard E. White

Chandra and Sirius/Sirius B

Brilliant Sirius and Sirius B, its dim white-dwarf companion (to the lower left of brilliant Sirius). It was Chandra (inset) who first determined the maximum mass of a white dwarf star. Sirius image: NASA / ESA / STScI / University of Leicester. Inset: NASA / CXC / University of Chicago.

October 19, 2010, was the centenary of the birth of Subrahmanyan
Chandrasekhar, known simply as "Chandra" in the astronomical community. The only person to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics for work primarily in theoretical astrophysics, he is best known for the "Chandrasekhar limit," the maximum mass of white dwarfs.

I was honored and humbled by an invitation from Chandra's niece, Nalini Easwar, to return to Smith College and the Five College Astronomy Department to review his science on the very day of the centenary. This article stems from that presentation, which I began with the words of G. Srivinasan, who edited a volume reviewing Chandra's diverse research: "The range of Chandra's contributions is so vast that no one person in the physics or astronomy community can undertake the task of commenting on his achievements."

Here I want to share the inspiration that I felt in reviewing Chandra's life and work, as well as provide a taste of the aspiration he fostered in my early career.



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