Leaps of imagination
Historian of science Arthur I. Miller on his book about Nobel Laureate S. Chandrasekhar and the idea of creativity in science.
Delving into creative minds: Arthur Miller.
No, not the playwright. I am Arthur I. Miller, the physicist-writer,” said the distinguished gentleman as he returned my greetings. We met in Seoul, South Korea, as fellow participants in a conference called “Imagination is National Competitiveness”. Before long, we were talking about the by-lanes of Triplicane, Chennai.
Chennai was Madras when Arthur Miller visited it to gather data for his novel Empire of the Stars. He had walked on the Marina beach, visited Triplicane, Radhakrishnan Salai and Mylapore and met as many people as he could to get information on the Nobel Laureate S. Chandrasekhar for his novel. Sitting in Seoul, Arthur Miller told me the story of Chandrasekhar, the racism that pervaded in his (Miller’s) native U.K. and about his roaming the streets of Triplicane in Chennai to look for the mathematics prodigy Ramanujam’s house.
Visualising the invisible
As soon as I came back to Chennai I bought a copy of the Empire of the Stars. As I read it, Arthur Miller’s keynote presentation in the Imagination conference on “Art, Science and the Creative Imagination” came alive. “How can we use our creative imagination to visualise the invisible?” was Arthur Miller’s question. “I am fascinated by the nature of creative thinking; the mind’s ability to transform information from everyday experiences into the most sublime works of art, literature, music and science. Is there anything that links the thought processes of the world’s greatest artists like Picasso and the world’s greatest scientists like Einstein? And if so, what is it? Can it make us more creative?” This has been the subject of Miller’s research for several decades.
As we walked around the Gwangju Biennele exhibits in South Korea, Miller played the tourist with a camera slung on his neck.
“Sometimes profound discoveries are made when a scientist seeks the proper manner of visually representing data. What I consider a magnificent example occurred in 1913 when the astrophysicist Henry Norris Russell was preparing a lecture for the Royal Astronomical Society in London. His task was to discuss the properties of over 300 stars in about 10 minutes. He came up with the idea of plotting them on a graph; one axis was temperature and the other brightness. To his amazement he found that the stars were not randomly scattered. Most of them lay within a diagonal strip, running from hot stars on the upper left to cooler ones on the lower right. It quickly became apparent to astrophysicists that his diagram gave clues to the birth and death of stars.”
So how did he come to write the story of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar? “As a teenager, I read Arthur Stanley Eddington (considered the greatest astrophysicist of his time). The sheer sweep of the subject was breathtaking and the language vivid and gripping. Chandra’s writings were inspiring in another way. They exemplified how a superbly gifted scientist could use mathematics to study the nature of stars. Yet the more I discovered about Chandra’s story, the more intriguing it became. As a young man growing up in Madras he had been a prodigy, recognised by many as a genius. Then he received a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. It was on the way to England in the ship that he made his discovery about the fate of white dwarf stars. But to his shock, Eddington refused even to take it seriously and subjected him to public ridicule in a persecution that went on for years. I wondered what other great discoveries Chandra might have made if this had not happened.”
Arthur Miller met Chandrasekhar when Chandra was 83 at a conference on creativity at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and asked him about Eddington. “His face clouded,” says Miller. “He graciously shook my hand and we agreed to speak again.”
But by the time Arthur Miller decided to explore the story more deeply, Chandrasekhar had died. Miller did extensive interviews with Chandrasekhar’s wife Lalitha, his siblings, cousins and colleagues and examined the letters and documents that Lalitha had deposited with the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library. “An important step in getting to know Chandra was to experience the tropical heat and dust of South India where he was born and grew up and lived until he was 19,” says Miller.
In Empire of the Stars, Arthur Miller brings to life Madras during Chandrasekhar’s school years. The book follows every detail of Chandrasekhar’s work and the prevailing research in astrophysics with just not the scientific facts but also sketches of personalities, manners and the environment around without being judgmental.
Following through, Miller talks about how time and the accretion of research finally proved Chandra correct and Eddington wrong.
“Chandra’s work lay dormant for three decades, only to be looked at anew when an entirely different development in world affairs — the race to design the hydrogen bomb — sparked renewed interest in the possibility of black holes. Chandra’s discovery returned to their proper place at the forefront of scientific endeavour. I have tried to write the biography of an idea rather than that of a man.”
Breaking the rules
Arthur Miller concluded his spellbinding lecture in Seoul dramatically, “In art and in science, discoveries are made by breaking the rules. But what’s interesting about Einstein and Picasso, and other highly creative people, is that they can’t seem to follow their discoveries through to the logical conclusions. Picasso never crossed the Rubicon and entered abstract expressionism. Einstein didn’t believe in quantum mechanics as the final atomic theory or in the most spectacular consequence of general relativity, the black hole.”
Miller says, “Chandra calculated his upper limit for an idealised white dwarf, a sphere of highly compressed electrons that do not interact with one another. In his day, it was a stunning leap of the imagination. Four years after Chandrasekhar’s death, the space shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying state-of-the-art the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It has been enormously successful, succeeding in clearing up mysteries which have troubled astronomers and astrophysicists for years.”
Apart from Empire of the Stars, Miller has also written Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc and Insights of Genius: Imagery and Creativity in Science and Art besides innumerable articles in several publications.