Mapping the Heavens

Priyamvada Natarajan introduced by Namita Gokhale

‘Priyamvada Natarajan makes mysteries accessible to those who don’t have the vocabulary or discipline to understand them,’ said Namita Gokhale when introducing Priya at ZEE JLF at Boulder. Priyamvada is a theoretical astrophysicist noted for her work in mapping dark matter, dark energy and black holes. She is the author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos. ‘I grew up in India. I was fortunate when I was young to know that I wanted to do scientific research. I was always in love with maps. I come from a family where it was not peculiar for a young girl to be interested in sciences and to do it well,’ said Priyamvada. ‘I knew I wanted to study physics and math but I also majored in philosophy as I was interested in the deeper questions about nature and science. I wanted to be an insider and an outsider to the scientific community. I wanted to be a physicist as well as have a humanities perspective. I wanted to show how the cosmologists of today are no different than the explorers of the 14th and 15th century.’ ‘We only found out about the Milky Way 100 years ago and now we’ve mapped billions of galaxies and we’ve found all these black holes. In 1929, Hubble (space telescope) discovered the universe was expanding. That was a very disorienting discovery. Even with the most radical ideas, scientists are still human. We know it is 13.7 billion years old and came into being, which we call the Big Bang,’ Priyamvada said. She also said that everything we see in the structure of the universe is driven by unseen forces. ‘Atoms make up 4.6%, dark energy is 72% and dark matter is 23%. Dark matter drives all formation. It has gravity but it does not emit light, so it’s not visible. We think it’s made of some peculiar particles that laze around. There is dark matter in this room but it doesn’t interact with anything else. We know it exists because of the light bending and the effect of gravity it exerts. It shapes the motion of objects. Dark energy proves that our universe isn’t just expanding but it’s accelerating.’ ‘The cosmos is my escape. I’m fascinated by the idea of black holes because they are such peculiar enigmatic objects. The black hole was proposed as a mathematical idea.’ Priya recounted researching where the term ‘black hole’ came from and discovered it was first used to describe an infamous prison in Calcutta which was a point of no return. When asked if there are any signs of life outside our galaxy, she replied that that are 5000 planets in our galaxy and scientists believe there may be more planets than stars in the universe. ‘In terms of probabilities, we have a tremendous number of sites where you could potentially have life. But, then what constitutes life? Does it have to be familiar to our notion of life? I do believe there is life elsewhere but it doesn’t have to be in a form we recognise as life. For instance, it could be a bacterium. Most likely, water is a prerequisite for life. As far as UFOs are concerned, we have no evidence of objects that weren’t created by humans’ she surmised.

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