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Empire of the Stars: Friendship, Obsession and Betrayal in the Quest for Black holes

Empire of the Stars by Arthur I. MillerAugust 1930. On a voyage from Madras to London, a young Indian looked up at the stars and contemplated their fate. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar – Chandra, as he was called – calculated that certain stars would suffer a strange and violent death, collapsing to virtually nothing. This extraordinary claim, the first mathematical description of black holes, brought Chandra into direct conflict with Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the greatest astrophysicists of the day. Eddington ridiculed the young man’s idea at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935, sending Chandra into an intellectual and emotional tailspin – hindering the progress of astrophysics for nearly forty years.

Empire of the Stars is the dramatic story of this intellectual debate and its implications for twentieth-century science. It traces the idea of black holes from early notions of “dark stars” to wormholes, quantum foam, and baby universes. In the process it follows the rise of the two great theories – relativity and quantum mechanics – that meet head on in black holes. Empire of the Stars provides a unique window into the remarkable quest to understand how stars are born, how they live, and, most portentously (for their fate is ultimately our own), how they die.

It is also the moving tale of one man’s struggle against the establishment – an episode that sheds light on what science is, how it works, and where it can go wrong. In this way it exposes the deep-seated prejudices that plague even the most rational minds. Indeed, it took the nuclear arms race to persuade scientists to revisit Chandra’s work from the 1930s, for the core of a hydrogen bomb resembles nothing so much as an exploding star. Only then did physicists realise the relevance, truth, and importance of Chandra’s work, which was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Set against the waning days of the British Empire and taking us right up to the present, this sweeping history examines the quest to understand one of the most forbidding phenomena in the universe, as well as the passions that fuelled the quest over the course of a century.

Shortlisted for the Aventis Prize.

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Reviews

‘A fascinating account of an important and moving story… I enjoyed [it] immensely and learnt a lot from it.’ Roger Penrose, The Times Higher Education Supplement

‘A well researched chronicle of how powerful intellects confronted some of the most fascinating challenges in the world of science – and how they confronted each other as well.’ Martin Rees, The Times

‘It is risky to start a book with its climax, as Miller has done… but the strategy works… 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.’ George Johnson, The New York Times

‘Miller has written engagingly about the complex social and scientific drama that swirled around the interplay of physics, astronomy and nuclear bombs in the middle of the last century.’ Paul Davies, Literary Review

‘Miller has written one of the best books for some years in the “Scientists Behaving Badly” genre.’ Graham Farmelo, The Telegraph

‘A complex tale, but Miller succeeds in taking the reader through the various advances in theoretical physics over several decades that helped pave the way for the acceptance of black holes.’ Simon Singh, Los Angeles Times Book Review

‘You will have to read Miller’s impressively well researched account of a fascinating and complex relationship between two of the giants of twentieth-century science.’ New Scientist

‘Miller… weaves two stories into one, making this scientific chronicle read like a novel.’ Scientific American

‘The book is so beautifully written that I read it in one sitting. The scientific issues, as well as the personalities of everyone involved in the debate, have been described in picturesque detail without either mincing words or making unsubstantiated claims… an authoritative description in a manner that is so thoroughly enthralling.’ Nature

‘An absorbing and informative book on a fascinating, but often overlooked, episode in the history of twentieth-century science… For Chandra… science was the pursuit of the beautiful, and Arthur I. Miller captures this well in his portrait of this remarkable scientist.’ Science

‘The story of the fight between Chandra and Eddington had to be told. Miller has had access to a wealth of private correspondence, enabling him to construct a compelling picture of the participants.’ The Guardian

‘A wonderful canvas of the culture of science during the first half of the twentieth century. Miller’s engrossing and readable account will appeal to historians, scientists, and anyone attracted to the whirlwind of science that erupted during the first half of the last century.’ Library Journal

‘By bringing black hole research into the present day, Miller beautifully illuminates both a fascinating history and a blossoming field of astrophysics while producing a pleasurable read.’ Sky and Telescope

‘Astronomy buffs and readers fascinated by the history of science will find this a compelling read.’ Publishers Weekly