Life Lessons from Nobel Laurette ‘Dr.Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’

On his birthday 19th October, Google’s homepage honoured astrophysicist and Noble Laurette Dr.Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar by publishing a doodle remembering him. I thought I would share some stories about him which I came across in the books I have read.

Do Not Bother About What Others Think About You.

In the late 1930s, at Unversity of Chicago, Dr.Chandrasekhar was scheduled to teach a course in astrophysics, at an observatory, 80 miles away from the main campus. Every professor prided themselves on their popularity of themselves and their course based on the number of students registered for the course. Unfortunately, only two students signed up for Dr.Chandrasekhar’s course.

Everyone ridiculed, mocked, made fun of Dr.Chandrasekhar’s course. Many thought that Dr.Chandrasekhar would cancel the course, as he had to travel 160miles for just two students. Dr.Chandrasekhar did not cancel the course, as he was fond of the subject and would never miss an opportunity to learn, teach, explore in depth on the subject. Being a smaller class, the students and the teacher were able to spend a significant amount of time in developing deep knowledge, create new perceptions, explore unmarked areas.

A few years later both the students went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Later Dr.Chandrasekhar himself got the Nobel Prize in 1983. It became the most successful class in the university — Everyone in the class had won a Nobel Prize.

Dr.Chandrasekhar and the students were never distracted by what others told or thought about them — They focused on what they liked to do, what interested them, what inspired them and what engaged them.

Do Not Take Anything Personally

Imagine a scenario — You have worked hard for years on a concept, done a good amount of research, discussed it with your superiors, boss and particularly with your mentor — You’re about to present the idea in an important meeting in front of a larger crowd of top decision makers. You have already got positive vibes, encouraging words from your colleagues, boss and mentor, before you begin the presentation.

At the end of your presentation, your mentor proceeds to deliver a scornful critique of your ideas and approach. As he talks, you would feel that your heart is pounding against your body, your facial muscles are going out of your control — All eyes are on you — Some people have expressed disappointment — Some of your colleagues have felt that your views are right, but afraid of contradicting your mentor’s views due to his reputation. Your mentor might have provided an unfair criticism. Your life was about to change for the worse. What would you do? How would you react? Would you be emotionally charged?

In the 1930s, Dr.Chandrasekhar considered Sir Arthur Eddington, an astronomical stalwart and the foremost authority on the physics of stars at that time, as his mentor and had continued to discuss his findings. Dr.Chandra was elated with the great Eddington’s apparent approval of his discoveries. Sir Arthur Eddington suggested Dr.Chandrasekhar announce his results at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

On January 11, 1935, Dr.Chandra gave his presentation, assuming that Eddington would support his conclusions. But to his horror, Sir Arthur Eddington criticised and ridiculed Dr.Chandra’s ideas, methodology. The criticism shocked Dr.Chandra. Many agreed with Dr.Chandra’s theory privately, but not inclined to contradict Eddington publicly.

How did Dr.Chandra respond?

Dr.Chandra got upset and stopped further research on the subject of white dwarfs, but continued to work on different other subjects.

Dr.Chandra did not consider the criticism as a personal attack and stayed as a good friend with Sir Arthur Eddington despite their controversy.

Chandra was also invited to deliver two centenary lectures on Eddington on 19 and 21 December 1983 at the Trinity College of Cambridge and he chose the title `Eddington: The Most Distinguished Astrophysicist of His Time’.

“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.” -Miguel Ruiz

“If you do not take anything personally, you would avoid jealousy, anger and sadness in your life. Your mind would be free enough to focus on the next tasks in your life”

Do Not Compromise

Dr.Chandra’s father, was quite an authoritarian, wanted his son to prepare for the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination so that he could land on highly lucrative and prestigious positions in government service. But, Dr.Chandra’s heart was in science research and wanted to follow footsteps of his uncle, Sir C V Raman(He too gave up an administrative career for a life of research in physics). Dr.Chandra refused to compromise.

We all come under intense pressure from our family, friends, employers, employees to compromise on our goals, career ambitions. To be unique, to do something special you may have to refuse to compromise at times.

Conquer Disappointments, Ignite Hope

Dr.Chandra published his findings in the late-1930s, but the scientific community rejected the same. He was upset and quit the research on white dwarfs.(He later continued to work on many subjects). It took a long time, about 30 years, for Chandra’s earlier work to get widely accepted. The Nobel Prize would come only in 1983(at the age of 77) for the work he did in the late 1930s.

Yash Pal, a well-known space scientist in 1983, “The work done by Chandrasekhar is finding more relevance today than ever before. We use his equations in space research, remote sensing, and modern astronomy. In fact, there is no field in which some or other of his discoveries are not used.”

The difference between successful and unsuccessful people is the way they deal with the disappointments and difficulties as they arise. They override momentary failure by focusing their mind on their next interesting things. We may not have control over some of the situations happening in our life, but we do have a choice of how we react to those situations.

References: The art of creative thinking by Rod Judkins, The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz, S Chandrasekhar: His Life and Science by Dr.Virendra Singh, Article in India Today magazine published in 1983, Wikipedia,