Empire of the Stars

In the late-nineteenth century, many scientists believed that the physical universe was well understood. Thanks to the fundamental physical laws formulated by Sir Isaac Newton, it was widely believed that the stars and the planets held few if any additional surprises. After the turn of the twentieth century, however, it seemed that everything had changed. There were, of course, Albert Einstein's theories on the curvature of space and the surrealistic effects of traveling at the speed of light, but there was also the theory of quantum mechanics, which characterized the physical world at the subatomic level. Strangest of all, perhaps, was the discovery of that celestial oddity, the black hole: a star of such mass that, upon exhausting its hydrogen fuel, contracts ad infinitum and becomes a kind of stellar maelstrom, devouring anything that crosses its path.

Nowadays, black holes are featured in science fiction and have become part of the popular lexicon. In Empire of the Stars: Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes, Arthur I. Miller makes it clear that that was not always the case. It was a nineteen-year-old Indian named Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who first postulated their existence in 1930. Chandra, as he was better known, faced bitter resistance from his mentor, astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, who considered the idea of perpetual collapse absurd. Miller deserves high praise, not just for his lucid descriptions of difficult concepts, but also for his portrayals of the flawed personalities who often dominate the scientific world. He suggests that if not for Eddington's irrational opposition, Chandra's ideas would have been accepted much sooner. Today, the scientific world honors the memory of Chandra's scientific contributions. Empire of the Stars eloquently explains how those ideas came into being.