In the summer of 1930, a nineteen-year-old Indian boy boarded the steamship SS Pilsna to sail from Bombay to Cambridge. During the sea voyage, he formulated the fundamental equations that govern the ultimate fate of the stars in our Universe. To his surprise, the calculations showed that contrary to accepted belief, certain stars were destined to meet a violent end, collapsing into nothing to become those strange and mysterious objects that we now call black holes.
The boy’s name was Subramanyan Chandrasekhar (or Chandra as he was popularly called) the Indian-American astrophysicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 and one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. Chandra’s discovery of black holes and vanishing stars shattered forever the Aristotelian conception of the heavens as an unchanging realm of peace and quiet. It also opened the gateway to a new world of science which flowered in the 1960s and ’70s under the likes of Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, who have become household names today.
But Chandra himself had to wait for over 40 years for his work to be given the recognition that it deserved – because his extraordinary discovery of black holes had been suppressed almost as soon it had been made in 1930. And the person responsible for this was Chandra’s own guru and mentor – Sir Arthur Eddington, the foremost astrophysicist of the age. Eddington’s brutal public humiliation of Chandra in the annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935 was entirely unexpected and an episode unparalleled in the history of modern science. This incident and the ensuing burial of his ideas by the European scientific establishment broke Chandra’s spirit. It took him many years to recover from this setback and slowly re-build his life with the support of Lalitha, his wife, and companion of 59 years.
Why did Eddington try to destroy Chandra? For a man renowned for his selfless and dispassionate commitment to the cause of science, Eddington’s actions have been a long-standing mystery in the annals of science. Was it out of a genuine inability to comprehend Chandra’s equations or was it because of his obsession with the Christian religion? Was it professional rivalry or deep-rooted racial prejudice that was at play? Or were there other forces at work?
“The Square Root of a Sonnet” is an attempt to answer these questions by exploring the intriguing and complex relationship between two giants of modern astrophysics – Chandra and Eddington. It is a story of ambition, friendship, and betrayal set against the backdrop of the epoch-making events of the twentieth century – the two great world wars, the Indian freedom struggle and above all, the birth of the strange new sciences of relativity and quantum mechanics.
But in the end, it is a play about two human beings and their families, of the decidedly messy human emotions and motivations that lie hidden below the cold and elegant equations for which Nobel Prizes are awarded– the conflicts and the choices, the disappointments and the euphoria of people whom we know of, but do not really know.