Priyamvada Natarajan | Universe’s cartographer

The Coimbatore-born astrophysicist, whose works on black holes won global recognition, is on TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in 2024

April 21, 2024 01:39 am | Updated 02:22 pm IST

On April 17, TIME Magazine published the list of 100 most influential people in 2024 which featured a number of Indian artists, entrepreneurs and innovators. Among them was astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan.

Endorsed by the Director of the Event Horizon Telescope and her contemporary, Sheperd (Shep) S. Doeleman, the article highlights her most significant contribution — “In November, a novel approach developed years ago by Priyamvada Natarajan brought us closer to understanding a basic mystery in astronomy: How do the supermassive black holes form? She had speculated that they might have gotten a jump start in the very early universe if clouds of gas collapsed to form massive black-hole ‘seeds’ that then grew within their host galaxies over billions of years.”

Also read: Alia Bhatt and Dev Patel feature on TIME’s 100 Most Influential List 2024

On receiving the email from TIME editors, Ms. Natarajan suspected that it was spam. “I realise what an honour and privilege this is,” she said. “It sends a message that people working in science can be seen as influential, and that is very gratifying.”

Born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, Ms. Natarajan grew up with her two siblings in Delhi. She earned her undergraduate degrees in Physics and Mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1998, she received her PhD based on her work in theoretical astrophysics from the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, England. While pursuing her PhD, she was elected for a research fellowship at Trinity College from 1997 to 2003. Currently, she is a faculty member at Yale.

Ms. Natarajan’s genius has been recognised through a number of awards and accolades, including the Liberty Science Center ‘Genius Award’ in 2022. She was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and the Emeline Conland Bigelow Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

She has also been elected as a fellow for the Royal Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society.

Ms. Natarajan’s research primarily focuses on gravitational lensing, black hole physics and mapping dark matter. Her most significant work, as mentioned in the TIME article, is a research paper published in 2023, which confirmed one of her previous theories postulated in 2017 which suggested that black holes could also have been born from the ‘primordial gas’ that existed in the early stages of the Universe after the Big Bang.

New theory

This theory was a departure from the existing thesis that black holes are formed when giant stars collapse onto themselves and start sucking in everything including light into themselves.

This theory highlighted a new way of not only looking at the formation of black holes but also at the creation and evolution of the universe. Her theory was finally proven when in 2019, the James Webb Telescope photographed a tiny pinprick of light, named UHZ-1, which was supposedly only a few hundred million years old (considered to be Universe’s infancy). The speck of light was a quasar powered by a gigantic black hole thought to be 13.2 billion years old. Finding a black hole this huge so soon in the Universe was unusual to say the least. Already working as an astrophysicist at Yale, Ms. Natarajan suggested that the UHZ-1 was a new type of black hole which formed when the gas clouds in the early universe collapsed in on itself.

Apart from her work in astrophysics, Ms. Natarajan has written a book, Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, published in 2016, which traces the most recent discoveries that have shaped humanity’s understanding of the cosmos.

In a review, Prajval Shastri, former professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, writes, “Throughout the book, Natarajan debunks the popular understanding of scientific research as a systematic, entirely objective, and smooth path to new knowledge. With striking honesty, she demonstrates how the practice of science is a strongly human endeavour with its strengths, but also frailties and failings.”

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