The University of Chicago Magazine October 1995
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In this department: Astronomy legend Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar dies at 84. U of C graduate departments top a new survey. A student's quest to expose the "myth" of political correctness. A World Wide Web tour of Yerkes Observatory.

Photographs from campus: New Trustees. A ceremony is held on campus in August commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Plus items For the Record.

One of astronomy's greats, Chandrasekhar dies at 84

Chandra, after winning the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Diploma in hand, Chandra poses at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1933.

Nobel Prize laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a member of the University's faculty for nearly 60 years, died of heart failure August 21 at the U of C Hospitals. He was 84.

"Chandra," as he was known affectionately by friends and colleagues, "was one of the great astrophysicists of our time," said Hans Bethe, a fellow Nobel laureate and physics professor emeritus at Cornell. Princeton astron- omy professor emeritus Martin Schwarzschild concurred: "There is total unanimity among astronomers that Chandra, as a mathematical astrophysicist, was the greatest of our generation."

Chandrasekhar was born in Lahore, India, in 1910. His family, em- bracing a strong tradition of scholarship, included an uncle, C. V. Raman, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1930. That same year, while sailing to England to begin studies at Cambridge University, Chandra made the discovery that would lead to his own Nobel Prize 53 years later.

During the voyage, Chandrasekhar worked out a startling series of calculations. At the time, most astronomers believed that when stars burned out, they settled down into quiet old age as white dwarfs. But Chandra's calculations revealed that in a star with a mass 1.4 times greater than our sun's, gravity would overcome the outward, repulsive force of electrons and trigger a collapse past the white-dwarf stage into some then inscrutable new state of matter-later defined as either a "black hole" or a neutron star.

When Chandrasekhar published his findings, one of the era's Grand Old Men of astronomy, Sir Arthur Eddington, publicly ridiculed the results. The repudiation played a role in Chandra's decision to leave England in 1937 for the U of C, where he settled into what became a lifelong pattern of research: total immersion in a field of mathematical astrophysics for a few years, summarization of his findings in a classic monograph, then an abrupt swerve toward "other things." In his investigations, he explored stars' gravitational interaction and their motion within galaxies, the radiative transfer of energy within stellar atmospheres, magnetohydro- dynamics, and-coming full circle with his Nobel Prize-winning discovery-black holes. A measure of his influence: Over 100,000 of his highly technical books have been sold.

His prodigious energy carried over into teaching. At the University's Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, Chandrasekhar was assigned the task of developing a graduate program in astronomy & astrophysics. Along with Yerkes astronomer Gerard Kuiper, Chandra devised a se- quence of 18 courses, then proceeded to teach most of them himself. Said a former student, Princeton University Provost Jeremiah Ostriker, PhD'64, "Chandra cared for the personal and intellectual well-being of his students, trained them carefully, and was willing to spend enormous amounts of time with them."

Chandrasekhar's curiosity often ventured outside scientific walls. He maintained an erudite and passionate interest in literature and classical music, finding commonality between artists and scientists in their quest for "truth and beauty."

His own quest culminated in his final book-Newton's Principia for the Common Reader, published this past summer by Clarendon Press-in which Chandrasekhar strove to illustrate Newton's genius by translating his masterpiece into the language of modern mathematics. During the course of the project, he would read a proposition from the Principia and then, before going to New- ton's proof, try to derive his own. Despite the 300 extra years of knowledge at his disposal, in nearly every case, he said, his proofs fell short of Newton's.

This humility was typical of Chandrasekhar, who described the creative life of scientist and artist in a 1990 essay in Nature as a constant striving against "one's inherent and often insurmountable limitations."

For Chandrasekhar, knowledge was a double-edged sword, offering the researcher transcendent insights into nature's workings, while tempting him "to consider himself not so much a student of nature as nature's master." And yet it was those moments of insight that made the venture worth the risk. Accepting the Nobel Prize in 1983, Chandrasekhar presented a stunning verbal equation of what his own pursuit of knowledge had yielded. "The simple," he said, "is the seal of truth. And beauty is the splendor of truth."

He is survived by his wife, Lalitha, who resides in Hyde Park, and by two brothers and three sisters in India.-T.A.O.

Doctoral departments make the grade

The University of Chicago made a strong showing in the nation's most comprehensive assessment of doctoral programs. Intended for use both by students choosing graduate programs and by groups financing research projects, the National Research Council study-released in September-placed 18 U of C graduate programs among the top ten in their fields for overall faculty quality, with five ranking first. (Programs in professional fields such as law and medicine were excluded from the study).

U of C departments and schools ranking first in faculty quality were: anthropology (tied with Michigan), ecology & evolution (tied with Stanford), economics (tied with Harvard), religion, and sociology.

Listed in the top ten for faculty quality were: art history (10), astronomy & astrophysics (5), chemistry (10), classics (7), English language and literature (10), geophysical sciences (7), history (8), linguistics (tied for 6), mathematics (5), music (2), physics (7), political science (6), and statistics (5). Faculty-quality criteria in- cluded federal-grant support, citation patterns, and awards and honors.

A separate measurement of teaching effectiveness gave top-ten rankings to 17 Chicago departments: anthropology (2), art history (10), astronomy & astrophysics (7), ecology and evolution (2), economics (3), English language and literature (7), geophysical sciences (7), history (8), linguistics (8), mathematics (2), molecular and general genetics (8), music (1), physics (5), political science (10), religion (2), sociology (2), and statistics (3).

Teaching effectiveness considered accessibility of faculty, curricula, instructional and research facilities, student quality, and adequacy of advising and mentorships.

The $1.2-million study was launched in 1991 to update a similar study done in 1982. Re- searchers evaluated 3,634 doctoral programs at 274 private and public universities. More than 8,000 faculty members evaluated academic programs on the basis of faculty quality and educational effectiveness. More information on the report is available at

Dogma-slayer: John Wilson debunks the PC "myth"

John Wilson: "Students know that the real problem they face is getting money to go to college, not speech codes or political correctness."

Continuing a series of interviews with campus figures, the Magazine's managing editor talks with John K. Wilson, a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought. Wilson is editor of Democratic Culture, the newsletter of Teachers for a Democratic Culture, and author of The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education, to be published this fall by Duke University Press.

Why do you believe political correctness is a myth?

When I say that political correctness is a myth, I'm not denying the fact that some of the PC anecdotes are accurate. I'm not denying the fact that conservatives have sometimes had their academic freedom violated. What I'm denying is this popular image of academia as a left-wing gulag where free speech is suppressed and indoctrination in leftist ideology reigns.

If academic and political conservatives are responsible for perpetrating such a myth, as your book maintains, what's their motivation? Why try to slay a dragon that doesn't really exist?

Whenever there's a new generation of scholarship, such as feminism and multiculturalism, you always get an older generation of scholars resisting it. For the political conservatives, it's part of a growing effort to shut down the left and take over higher education.

You can see it in the efforts to defund anything perceived as left-wing, like the NEA and the NEH, as well as in the attempts to exert greater ideological control over academia by legislators, trustees, and even alumni donations-like Lee Bass's $20-million donation to Yale and the new National Alumni Forum run by Lynne Cheney.

At one point in your book you concede that there are leftists in academe who are "intolerant of others' viewpoints." Isn't that a definition of political correctness?

Of course some leftists, like some conservatives, are intolerant of other views. But there are virtually no leftists among the ranks of college presidents, trustees, or legislators-and that's where I think the greatest threats to intellectual freedom are coming from.

You title a chapter of your book "Conservative Correctness." What exactly does the term mean-and how do you see it being played out on American campuses?

The chapter on "Conservative Correctness" tells the stories of the leftists fired for their political beliefs, the professors fired for being gay or lesbian, the professors fired for being feminists. In the books about PC, only the anecdotes about left-wing intolerance get told, and that's why people have the false impression of left-wing thought police goose-stepping around the quads.

Once you hear about conservative correctness as well as PC, you realize that the real problem is a failure to protect academic freedom. You realize that the attacks on the academic left are part of the intolerance of different viewpoints, not part of the solution.

You've suggested that the political-correctness debate has distracted the public away from the real issues threatening American higher education. What are some of those issues?

The big issue is money. Professors worry about budget cutbacks, not political correctness. Students know that the real problem they face is getting money to go to college, not speech codes or political correctness. There's also a question of academic freedom in- volved because the sources of funding for universities-alumni, legislators, corporations-are beginning to make ideological demands with their grants.

Why haven't more academics attempted to expose this potentially damaging myth?

They have. But the mainstream media is more interested in the wild accusations than the accurate refutations. And the academic left has never been very good at expressing itself to the public. You also have to consider that conservative foundations have paid many people a lot of money to give them the opportunity to write books about the decline of higher education, while no one is getting paid to reveal all the errors and misrepresentations in them.

What have you observed about the political-correctness debate at the U of C?

On this campus, professors and students with similar points of view tend to go off to their own departments or classes where they basically hear what they want to hear and are not challenged by what others with different points of view may have to say. As a consequence, when is- sues do come up-very serious issues like the harassment of gays or racism or sexism-the University has not been very good at dealing with those problems. I think what we need is some sort of space for debating these issues in public: having different people with different views hearing each other. Instead, the response tends to be indifference-or denial.

What reactions are you anticipating when the book comes out next month?

I expect to be accused of being in denial. I expect to be accused of being part of a conspiracy to conceal the power of the academic left. One thing I don't expect is to have any of the facts in the book refuted. What I fear is that I'll be ignored. I always enjoy giving and receiving harsh criticism, because I think in a debate on the merits my views will be the most persuasive. But for a lot of people who have been repeating these myths about colleges and universities, it will be a lot easier to ignore my book than to argue against what I'm saying.-T.A.O.

Virtual Yerkes

In August, the University astronomy & astrophysics department officially launched its Yerkes Observatory virtual tour. The tour thoroughly examines the 98-year-old facility, located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, as both an architectural and scientific marvel.

Highlights: The Web page takes an intimate look at the ornate details of the Henry Ives Cobb-designed building, including a caricature of William Rainey Harper carved into one pillar and a rare close-up of one of the roof's "celestial spheres." A separate home-page link is devoted to what is still the world's largest refracting telescope: "The lens itself is 40 inches across, and the tube is 63 feet long. This is a big telescope!"

World Wide Web location:

Also in this department: Photographs from campus: New Trustees. A ceremony is held on campus in August commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Plus items For the Record.

Go to: Return to October 1995 Table of Contents