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24 Jun, 2017


The Square Root of a Sonnet

Can art reimagine the clash between the two titans of science, Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar and Sir Arthur Eddington, on the theory for stellar evolution ? The critically acclaimed play Square root of a sonnet, staged in many venues across India, does precisely that. The author of the play Nilanjan Chaudhury gives his motivations for projecting the human dimensions behind this real-life drama.

Nilanjan Choudhary as Chandra in a scene from the play Square root of a sonnet.

It is my personal belief that we in India have done very little to make the story of science and of scientists, accessible to a wider audience through the medium of story-telling, literature, theatre and film.

In the summer of 1930, a nineteen year old Indian boy boarded the steamship SS Pilsna to sail from Bombay to Cambridge. During the sea voyage, he formulated the fundamental equations that govern the ultimate fate of the stars in our Universe. To his surprise, the calculations showed that contrary to accepted belief, certain stars were destined to meet a violent end, collapsing into nothing to become those mysterious objects that we now call black holes.

The boy's name was Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, the brilliant Indian-American astrophysicist who continues to remain relatively unknown in India inspite of winning the Nobel Prize in 1983. Chandra's discovery of black holes and vanishing stars opened the gateway to the strange new science of black holes which flourished in the 1960's and 70's under the likes of Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose.

But Chandra himself had to wait for over 40 years for his work to be given the recognition that it deserved - because his extraordinary discovery of black holes had been suppressed almost as soon it had been made in 1930. And the person responsible for this was Chandra's own guru and mentor - Sir Arthur Eddington, the foremost astrophysicist of the age.

Why did Eddington try to destroy Chandra? For a man renowned for his dispassionate commitment to the cause of science, Eddington's actions have been a long-standing mystery in the annals of modern science. Was it because of his deeply religious beliefs, professional rivalries or deep rooted racial prejudice ? Or were there other forces at work ?

My play The Square Root of a Sonnet is an attempt to answer these questions by exploring the intriguing and complex relationship between two giants of modern astrophysics - Chandra and Eddington. It is a story of ambition, friendship and betrayal set against the back drop of the epoch-making events events of the twentieth century - the two great world wars, the Indian freedom struggle and above all, the birth of the strange new sciences of relativity and quantum mechanics.

It is a story that I stumbled upon after having accidentally encountered the books on Chandrasekhar by Kameshwar Wali and Arthur I. Miller (see references) and soon I was itching to tell it in my own way - through theatre. I had my reasons. For one, I have long been disappointed by the almost total absence of convergence between the sciences and the arts in India, particularly the literary and performing arts. The reasons are unclear to me. But I suppose this is at least partially a consequence of our education system which actively discourages such convergences by erecting high walls between the two disciplines from a fairly early age. The other reasons probably include a lack of documentation, inter-disciplinary academic studies, research projects and media articles that explore the intersection of the sciences and the humanities.

Whatever be the causes, it is my view, that we in India have successfully managed to confine science to her ivory tower.

But the situation is quite different in the West which, over the last one hundred years or so, has given us landmark plays like Life of Galileo, Inherit the Wind, Arcadia, Copenhagen and so on and excellent books and films like A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, The Man Who Knew Infinity (ironically on the Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan) and most recently Hidden Figures. These works have been highly successful in creatively communicating the excitement and the drudgery, the joys and the disappointments and the very messy human processes that often lie at the heart of doing science.

It is my personal belief that we in India have done very little to make the story of science and of scientists, accessible to a wider audience through the medium of story-telling, literature, theatre and film. The Square of a Sonnet is a very modest attempt to bridge this gap. Whether it will make a difference or not is another matter, for the gap is large and theatre has an inherent challenge of scale.

But personally, it has been a deeply fulfilling experience for me to see the warmth of responses of audience members from a variety of backgrounds, from opposite ends of the arts-science spectrum, so to speak. I am quoting two of them here, for they resonate strongly with my original motivations and make such efforts seem meaningful.

Prof. Amrita Hazra, working at the chemistry department of IISER Pune, commented that "the idea that science is deeply human shone clearly through the play. This message makes science more real, and accessible to aspiring scientists. When one reads a scientific paper, or writes a grant or even hears a talk, one seldom hears the human being talking. The scientific concept, the discovery, the invention is conveyed, but one hardly hears about the ethical conflicts, the ups and downs, the meals skipped, the events missed, the families destroyed in the pursuit of one's discovery. I think such plays are an important form of science communication that is lacking not only in India but world-wide."

Even more encouraging was the response of the father of a 15-year old arts student. He said that "Ritu and I saw the play and were mesmerized by it. Ritu is more of an arts type and has fascination for acting and psychology. However the play was so lucid that she understood complex cosmology."

It is the responses like these that lead me to believe that there are many more bridges that need to be built, many more stories of science and scientists that need to told. There are people waiting to hear them.

References :
1. Arthur I. Miller (2010), Empire of the Stars, (Little, Brown Book Group, London).
2. Kameshwar C. Wali (1982), Chandrasekhar vs. Eddington: An Unanticipated Confrontation, Physics Today, vol. 35, no. 10.
3. Kameshwar C. Wali (1990), Chandra: The Biography of S. Chandrasekhar. University of Chicago Press.

Nilanjan P. Choudhury is a Bangalore based theatre artist, novelist and IT professional. As an actor and director he has worked in over 200 stage performances, with many of Bangalore's leading theatre companies like Centre for Film and Drama, Bangalore School of Speech and Drama, Artistes Repertory Theatre and others. His debut play The Square Root of a Sonnet is the first of a trilogy of science plays and is due for publication soon. His previously published works include a mythological thriller Bali and the Ocean of Milk and a crime caper, The Case of the Secretive Sister. Nilanjan confesses to having studied at IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Kanpur (Physics) and hopes that this will not be held against him. He can be reached at