Priyamvada Natarajan: The Map Maker of the Cosmos


Our universe is enormous and full of wonders. Some people look at the sky and see the flickering of faraway stars in the night sky and write poetry in ode to the beauty they see, others simply appreciate the beauty of the moment and think no more of it, while others are intrigued, their curiosity peaked, and end up researching these cosmological phenomena.

Such was the case for a young Indian girl growing up in Delhi. She looked through a telescope to see the night sky and fell under the spell of the bewitching jewels up above. Being intellectually curious and interested in the sciences, she grew up to be a theoretical astrophysicist; her name is Priyamvada Natarajan, and she is currently carrying out important research concerned with black holes and dark matter, and works on creating maps of the invisible matter in the cosmos.

Natarajan has published a book, Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos, in which she explains and shows the ways by which scientists are attempting to figure out the mysteries of the cosmos. The book covers the ideas that have reshaped the way we view the universe over the past century. One of which is the discovery that the universe is expanding and not stagnant as it once was believed, and how in the past fifteen years we have found that it is also expanding at an accelerating speed and this acceleration is propelled by dark matter and dark energy.

In one of her talks, she preferred the study of space to that of archeology; she said: “When you look out to the night sky, you look back in time, so this is no different from archeology; when you dig underground and find artifacts, this is basically archeology of the cosmos. When you look out into the night sky, you are actually seeing the history of all the stars that have formed in all the galaxies out there. Our cosmic messenger is really light; it is light that carries all the information about what is out there and it is light that we analyze; it is the property of light that we use to make sense of the universe.”

So, how does she go about her work seeing as she studies invisible things? Her research and work revolve around the observation of the effect dark matter and dark energy have on the motions of celestial bodies. We can observe what dark matter does through the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, essentially the bending of light. The light is being emitted from distant galaxies, and on its journey to us, it passes through the gravitational field of dark matter, which causes it to be bent by the lensing effect.

What she does is use the information from her observations to develop theoretical models to map dark matter and dark energy in the universe. In her work, she uses the Hubble Space Telescope and the X-ray data from the Chandra Telescope.

Interested to hear more about Priyamvada Natarajan? Check out the following videos of her giving talks about her work and research methods.





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