[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Star Wars: Episodes 1 and 2
checker at panix.com
Sat Jun 4 22:58:32 UTC 2005
Star Wars: Episodes 1 and 2
New York Times Book Review, 5.6.5
EMPIRE OF THE STARS
Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes.
By Arthur I. Miller.
Illustrated. 364 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $26.
CONFLICT IN THE COSMOS
Fred Hoyle's Life in Science.
By Simon Mitton.
Illustrated. 401 pp. Joseph Henry Press. $27.95.
By GEORGE JOHNSON
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
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
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
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
More information about the paleopsych