Archive for July, 2003

The ‘Chandra’ I Met

Monday, July 14th, 2003

Jul 14, 2003

The first thing you noticed about Dr Subrahmanyam Chandrashekhar was the quality of silence he brought into any room he walked into. It was a crystalline and ascetic quiet he carried with him, his grey hair, high forehead, aquiline nose and piercing gaze lending a serene seer-like aura.I met him in the early ’90s in Delhi, when he was visiting his niece (and my friend) Radhika. The Nobel Prize was 10 years behind him and he was searching for a suitable challenge to test his mind in his twilight years.

And he had found one. He wanted to bring his spectacular logical-mathematical thinking skills to develop a theory of aesthetics: what were the inherent qualities in a work of art that made it beautiful and aesthetically true? He had been in correspondence with some of the world’s most famous writers, painters and composers and had probed their minds and their views on what made them tick, what made them like a piece of work. He was trying to develop nothing less than the ‘Grand Unified Theory of Beauty’. There was someone in that room who wasn’t convinced that such a theory was possible. “Sir, let me tell you a story by the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, one of his most famous, and one of the funniest stories I have ever read,” he said. “Will a logic-based theory be able to explain its charm?”

And he told the story of Pierre Menard, who had made it his life’s mission to write Don Quixote. In our unimaginative reality, this meant that he began copying Cervantes’ novel word for word, comma for comma. The story is written as a review of Menard’s Quixote, with the reviewer (Borges) constantly pointing out that whereas a word in Cervantes’ novel here or a punctuation mark there was placid or sterile, the same word or semicolon became pregnant with meaning, redolent with subtext, in Menard’s hand. Chandrashekhar was baffled. “What’s the meaning of this story?”, he asked. Interestingly, his wife had enjoyed the story.

The conversation moved on to other topics: his ideas about teaching, his students. I asked him about Arthur Eddington, the British physicist who, for years, kept attacking the Chandrashekhar Limit—the astronomical discovery that finally won him the Nobel—viciously and erroneously. But the austerely courteous Chandrashekhar would not say a word against him, only talk about Eddington’s contributions. Eddington’s biases set Chandrashekhar’s career back by many years, but he never uttered a word about the injustice done to him. That night, I realised what being a true evolved gentleman meant.