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Priyamvada Natarajan | Universe cartographer

Priyamvada Natarajan |  Universe cartographer

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

The article, endorsed by Event Horizon Telescope director and contemporary, Sheperd (Shep) S. Doeleman, highlights her most important 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 Colossal? I've 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 inside their host galaxies over billions of years.

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Upon receiving the email from TIME editors, Ms. Natarajan suspected it was spam. “I realize what an honor and privilege this is,” she said. “It sends a message that people who work in science can be seen as influencers, and that's a lot of fun.”

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

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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 at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.

She has also been elected as 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 important work, as noted in the TIME article, is a paper published in 2023, which confirmed one of her previous hypothesized theories in 2017 that suggested that black holes could also have been born from “primordial gas” present in the universe. The early stages of the universe after the Big Bang.

New theory

This theory was a departure from the current hypothesis that black holes form when giant stars collapse in on themselves and begin sucking everything including light into them.

This theory highlighted a new way to look not only at the formation of black holes but also at the creation and evolution of the universe. Her theory was finally proven when the James Webb Telescope in 2019 imaged a tiny pinprick of light, called UHZ-1, which is supposedly only a few hundred million years old (considered the beginning of the universe). The spot of light was a quasar powered by a giant black hole believed to be 13.2 billion years old. Finding a black hole this massive 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 clouds of gas in the early universe collapsed in on themselves.

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Aside from her work in astrophysics, Ms. Natarajan wrote a book, Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, published in 2016, which traces 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, completely objective, and seamless path to new knowledge. With startling candor, she shows how doing science is a powerful human endeavor It has strengths, but also weaknesses and failures.

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