Priyamvada Natarajan | Cartographer of the universe

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

The article, endorsed by Sheperd (Shep) S. Doeleman, director and contemporary of Event Horizon Telescope, highlights her key contributions: “In November, a new approach developed years ago by Priyamvada Natarajan brings us closer to understanding a fundamental mystery in astronomy: how black holes form colossals? I have speculated that in the very early universe they might have taken off when gas clouds collapsed to form massive black hole “seeds” that then grew in their host galaxies for billions of years.

Also read: Alia Bhatt and Dev Patel feature in Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2024

When Ms. Natarajan received the email from TIME editors, she suspected it was spam. “I realize what an honor and privilege this is,” she said. “It sends the message that people who work in science can be seen as influencers, and that’s really nice.”

Ms. Natarajan was born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and grew up with her two brothers in Delhi. She received her bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1998 she received her PhD for her work in theoretical astrophysics from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England. While pursuing her PhD, she was chosen for a research fellowship at Trinity College from 1997 to 2003. She is currently a faculty member at Yale University.

Ms. Natarajan’s genius has been recognized with a number of awards and honors, including a “Genius Award” from the Liberty Science Center in 2022. She has been awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and an Emeline Conland Bigelow Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University.

She has also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society.

Ms. Natarajan’s research focuses primarily on gravitational lensing, black hole physics and dark matter mapping. Her most significant work, as mentioned in the TIME article, is a paper published in 2023, which confirmed one of her earlier hypotheses from 2017, which suggested that black holes could also have formed from “primeval gas” created in the universe found. The early stages of the universe after the Big Bang.

New theory

This theory differs from the current hypothesis that black holes form when giant stars collapse on themselves and begin to suck in everything, including light.

This theory highlighted a new way of looking at not only the formation of black holes, but also the creation and evolution of the universe. Her theory was finally proven when the James Webb Telescope imaged a tiny pinprick of light in 2019 called UHZ-1, which is believed to be only a few hundred million years old (considered the beginning of the universe). The bright spot was a quasar powered by a giant black hole believed to be 13.2 billion years old. Finding a black hole of this size in the universe so quickly was unusual, to say the least. Ms Natarajan, who was already working as an astrophysicist at Yale University, suggested that UHZ-1 was a new type of black hole that formed when gas clouds in the early universe collapsed on themselves.

In addition to her work in astrophysics, Ms. Natarajan wrote a book, Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, published in 2016, which details the latest discoveries that have shaped humanity’s understanding of the universe.

In a review, Brajval Shastri, former professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, wrote: “Throughout the book, Natarajan debunks the common understanding of scientific research as a systematic, fully objective and seamless path to new knowledge. With surprising candor, she shows how doing science is a powerful human endeavor. It has strengths, but also weaknesses and failures.

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