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Special Content


Issue no 48, 25 February-3 March 2023

'Some Eminent Indian Scientists'

BOOK EXCERPT

 

India has a rich cultural heritage and a history of being a center of learning and knowledge in ancient times. However, it is unfortunate that the contributions made by Indian scientists are often overlooked and under represented. This is primarily due to a skewed global perspective that tends to glorify European and American scientists, while ignoring the scientific advancements made by individuals from other regions, including India. This oversight creates a gap in knowledge about the achievements and contributions of Indian scientists, who have played a significant role in shaping the modern scientific landscape. Hence, it becomes imperative for us to educate ourselves and acknowledge these individuals who have made invaluable contributions to the field of science. Publications Division's book 'Some Eminent Indian Scientists' by Jagjit Singh is an admirable effort to help the lay readers understand the fundamental truths discovered by some of the most eminent Indian scientific thinkers while avoiding the technical complexities of scientific theories. Below is an excerpt from the chapter on Physicist S. Chandrashekhar who shared the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics with William A. Fowler.

Henry James once remarked that but for the excessive intellectual vivacity of men like Democritus, Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, and other eccentric genii whom the example of these men has inflamed, The commonsense ideas derived from our daily life would have lasted us forever. Dr. Chandrasekhar is certainly one of these 'inflamed' genii. He has shown, contrary to what commonsense may seem to suggest, that stars and atoms are linked by a close ideological bond, so that knowledge of the one is grist to the other. A case in point is his forecast of the fates of stars, particularly in the last throes of their life, by a study of the behaviour of atoms crushed to smithereens. To bring this feat of intellect to pass, he had no doubt, to be inspired by great iconoclasts of familiar notionsmen like Eddington, Dirac, Bohr, Bethe, Milne and others. But then, how else can one even conceive of the stars, those eternal co-eternal entities of plain commonsense, to have a varied and eventful life that may one day cease to exist? The utmost that our everyday experience of the starry heavens may suggest is that the stars are merely other suns, only infinitely more remote. But it can never divine the source of the continuous discharge of the precious flame they pour out incessantly into space. Relying on such experience, Lucretius, for example, wrote in his Nature of Things: "We must believe that sun, moon and stars emit light from fresh and ever fresh supplies rising up."How the fresh supplies came into being neither Lucretius nor any of his scientific successors down to our own day could hardly ever dream. For, before the discovery of nuclear energy barely twenty years ago, there were only two known sources of heat and fire, both of which we use in our homes. One is chemical combustion and the other gravitation, that is, the fall of materials under their own selfattraction. We resort to the former when we warm ourselves by burning coal or gas, but we tap the latter when we turn falling torrents like the Niagara Falls, into electricity. Neither of these would enable the sun to shine at its present rate for more than a mere twinkle of its known life.

To take the latter first, it can be proved that even if the solar material contracted from infinity to its present dimensions, the total gravitational energy released thereby would not last more than twenty million years, whereas the sun is known to have radiated energy at its present rate for at least ever since the emergence of life on earth, some 500 million years ago. The combustion source has even lesser staying power. If this were all the sun could have, it would have been bankrupted in mere millennia. To make the sun draw its daily sustenance of light from either of them, or even both together is worse than setting Baron Munchausen's bears Sultan's solitary bee for the latter's honey. This difficulty about the source of solar energy was not resolved till the discovery of atomic energy which we are just beginning to tap by elaborate artificial means. But in the sun and stars it sprouts forth automatically, because when ordinary matter manages to gravitate together in stellar size, it can remain in equilibrium only by developing high temperatures of millions of degrees in its interior regions in order to acquire the power to withstand the colossal weight of overlying layers. At these temperatures, nuclear reactionsmainly conversion of hydrogen, the nuclear fuel into helium with release of nuclear energy-begin to occur spontaneously."

The book, first printed in 1965, is a compilation of articles on 18 eminent Indian scientists. The book (print and e-book) can be purchased from Publications Division website - www.publicationsdivision.nic. in or amazon.co.in and Kindle.