[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Star Wars: Episodes 1 and 2

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Star Wars: Episodes 1 and 2
New York Times Book Review, 5.6.5

Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes.
By Arthur I. Miller.
Illustrated. 364 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $26.

Fred Hoyle's Life in Science.
By Simon Mitton.
Illustrated. 401 pp. Joseph Henry Press. $27.95.


    The object of the game is to figure out how the universe works by
    watching tiny lights move across the sky. The answers must be
    expressed in numbers -- that is the cardinal rule -- but sometimes
    passions take over, leaving the history of astrophysics bloodied from
    clashes among some of the smartest people in the world.

    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar -- associates always called him Chandra --
    was 19 when, on a boat from India to Britain, he had an idea whose
    consequences seemed absurd. Scientists suspected that when a star
    finally gave out, it would be squashed by its own gravity, growing
    smaller and denser until it died. But what if a star was so massive it
    was unable to stop collapsing? As it contracted its gravity would keep
    increasing until, Chandra concluded, it swallowed itself and
    disappeared -- a black hole. In the next few years, at Cambridge
    University, he showed mathematically how this would happen, and in
    1935 (he was 24) presented his case at a meeting of the Royal
    Astronomical Society. The proof was in the equations, but the fight
    had barely begun.

    In ''Empire of the Stars: Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the
    Quest for Black Holes,'' Arthur I. Miller, a British philosopher of
    science, describes the scene as Chandra's older colleague Sir Arthur
    Stanley Eddington rises to the podium and savages the black hole
    theory. To Eddington, as brash and overbearing as Chandra was reserved
    and polite, the theory was ''stellar buffoonery,'' and so great was
    his prestige that five decades passed before Chandra, then at the
    University of Chicago, was vindicated by a Nobel Prize.

    Cosmological politics makes for spellbinding dramas. But the stories
    are hard to tell. By combining clear explanations of the physics with
    page-turning accounts of two of astronomy's great feuds, ''Empire of
    the Stars'' and Simon Mitton's new book, ''Conflict in the Cosmos:
    Fred Hoyle's Life in Science,'' bring back a time when Cambridge was
    one of the most intellectually stimulating snake pits in the world.

    Chandra and Eddington were born with different kinds of brains. A
    caricature of the eccentric Cambridge don, Eddington thought in grand
    sweeps. Not content with explaining life cycles of stars, he pursued a
    theory that would account for everything from atoms' insides to the
    arrangement of galaxies. He didn't worry much about specifics; he went
    with hunches and let details sort themselves out. As adept with a pen
    as with a slide rule, he wrote elegant popularizations of science that
    sold all over the world.

    Eddington had anticipated the problem of black holes and all but
    willed it away: ''I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a
    star from behaving in this absurd way,'' he said in that fateful
    encounter with Chandrasekhar. That wasn't simply bluster. His
    Cambridge colleague Ralph Fowler thought he had proved that quantum
    mechanics set a limit on how small a star could be. Eddington seized
    on those calculations as verification of what he hoped in his heart
    was true.

    More comfortable with mathematics than wordplay, Chandra took a more
    dogged approach, miring himself in the details and climbing his way
    out. His papers, dense with equations, told him his superiors were
    mistaken: Fowler had left something important out of his analysis of
    the death throes of stars -- the effects of relativity. Take those
    into account and it was clear that some stars would become
    infinitesimally small.

    It is risky to start a book with its climax, as Miller has done,
    opening with the confrontation at the Astronomical Society meeting.
    But the strategy works. Immediately the reader is set to wondering why
    Eddington, usually a fearless thinker, would so vehemently reject
    black holes. Even more exasperating is the obsequiousness of his
    colleagues, who dared not say publicly what they confided to friends,
    that Eddington was wrong. By the time the story is over, Miller
    reveals the reasons, which have as much to do with psychology as with
    the abstractions of modern physics.

    SADLY, Chandra too becomes adept at the game. Guessing that the
    society would send one of his papers to James Jeans, a prominent
    Eddington rival, for review, he made sure to include a reference to
    Jeans's research. ''The trick worked!'' Chandra gloated in a letter to
    a friend. ''It is all really sickening -- these underhand methods, but
    what can one do?''

    Though hurt and disillusioned by his Cambridge experiences, he didn't
    hold a grudge. After he moved to the United States, he and Eddington
    exchanged cordial letters. When food was rationed in England during
    World War II, Chandra sent his old adversary, who would soon die of
    cancer, care packages of rice.

    Eddington was a hard act to follow, but along came Fred Hoyle. In
    ''Conflict in the Cosmos,'' Mitton, a Cambridge astronomer who knew
    many of the people in his story, describes how Hoyle arrived at the
    university from rural Yorkshire in 1933, shortly after Chandra did,
    and steeped himself in astrophysical skulduggery. Hoyle too was an
    outspoken expert on stellar evolution, and when an endless talk by the
    immovable Eddington prevented him from delivering a controversial
    paper, he was certain it was a plot. Maybe -- Eddington opposed his
    theory -- but Cambridge had a way of breeding paranoia.

    Hoyle stayed at Cambridge for life, eventually assuming Eddington's
    professorial chair. He was a deft literary stylist and popularizer --
    he and Eddington were the Carl Sagans of their times -- and was
    possessed of a first-magnitude ego that led him into his own
    intellectual swamp.

    While Eddington abhorred black holes, Hoyle recoiled at the notion
    that the universe began with what he mockingly called a ''big bang.''
    (The name stuck, embraced by friends and foes of the theory.) Just as
    the universe was infinite in extent, Hoyle was certain, it must also
    be infinite in time. In this ''steady state'' cosmology, there was no
    abrupt beginning; matter is constantly generated everywhere. As he put
    it on a popular BBC radio show, ''This means that in a volume equal to
    a one-pint milk bottle about one atom is created in a thousand million

    It was a minority view, but he and a few like-minded theorists were
    able to keep the plate spinning for years. Another Cambridge luminary,
    Martin Ryle, finally brought it crashing down. An irascible,
    hardheaded experimenter, Ryle thought theorists like Hoyle were daffy.
    In a colloquium on sunspots, Mitton reports, Ryle became so incensed
    by Hoyle's speculations that he dashed to the blackboard and angrily
    erased the equations.

    Ryle, an expert at measuring stellar radio waves, was determined to
    disprove the steady-state theory. Continuous creation of matter would
    mean that galaxies everywhere are about the same age. But if the
    universe began with an explosion, more distant objects would appear
    younger, for their light has been traveling toward Earth since the
    beginning of time.

    When Ryle's numbers were plotted on a graph, the outcome of the great
    debate came down to the slope of a single line. For years it seesawed,
    as the first Cambridge Survey of Radio Sources was followed by a
    second and a third. In 1961 Hoyle and his wife were invited to attend
    a press conference in which Ryle would present the fourth survey's
    results. That turned out to be a setup. Hoyle squirmed onstage while
    Ryle unfurled his data. ''Would Professor Hoyle care to comment?'' In
    a bizarre twist, The Evening Standard of London headlined the outcome:
    ''Universe -- Bible Is Correct.'' In the beginning was the Big Bang.

    Not that Hoyle was persuaded. He was as overly impressed with his
    sense of cosmological aesthetics as Eddington had been with his. Big
    bangs popping out of nowhere, stars disappearing into gravitational
    holes -- call it ugly, if you like, but don't expect the universe to

    George Johnson's most recent book is ''Miss Leavitt's Stars: The
    Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the

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