Yale Astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan Talks About Demystifying Science

Convening Yale

Shyam Sunder, James L. Frank Professor of Accounting, Economics, and Finance, and Priyamvada Natarajan

In her new book, Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale, hopes to demystify the principles of the scientific method for a skeptical public.

“I want to engage more broadly with the public about the parameters of science and how science actually works,” Natarajan told an audience at the Yale School of Management on November 29. A theoretical astrophysicist, Natarajan spoke as part of Convening Yale, a lecture series that brings scholars from across Yale to Yale SOM to share their research.

Natarajan’s cutting-edge research delves into cosmology, gravitational lensing, and black hole physics, and involves mapping the detailed distribution of dark matter and black energy in the universe. Her book Mapping the Heavens was published earlier this year.

Explaining that she is “alarmed by the disbelief and denial” concerning science that is “rampant right now,” Natarajan said that in her book she hopes to clarify two aspects of the scientific process that scientists have done a poor job explaining, and that have become stumbling blocks to wider public trust in science.

One is that scientific knowledge is “provisional,” reflecting the best thinking to date and subject to change and revision, Natarajan said. The second is the degree of uncertainty involved in scientific theories and how the nature of this uncertainty is too easily misconstrued or exaggerated.

“We haven’t done a good job explaining these things,” Natarajan said, adding that the threat of climate change has made it even more imperative for scientists to establish credibility with the public. In her own field, the growth of big data and ever-improving technology is fueling an explosion of research.

Natarajan gave the audience a broad overview of Einstein’s theory of gravity, black holes, and dark matter. “Humans have always wanted to make sense of the cosmos,” she said. “Today we know a lot about the universe, but some components remain elusive. We’re studying the gaps. You never know if an anomaly will confirm an old truth or reveal a new one.”

About the Event

 Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of astronomy and physics, will take part in a Convening Yale lecture titeld “Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos” on November 29. Professor Natarajan is a theoretical astrophysicist interested in cosmology, gravitational lensing, and black hole physics. Her research involves mapping the detailed distribution of dark matter in the universe exploiting the bending of light en-route to us from distant galaxies.

Convening Yale presents talks by faculty and leaders from throughout Yale University, who share their research and expertise and help students broaden their understanding of an increasingly complex world. The Convening Yale series is made possible through the generous support of the Robert J. Silver ’50 Fund for Innovation in Management Education.

This lecture is open to the Yale Community.

 

Biography

Priyamvada Natarajan is a professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University. She is a theoretical astrophysicist interested in cosmology, gravitational lensing and black hole physics. Her research involves mapping the detailed distribution of dark matter in the universe exploiting the bending of light en-route to us from distant galaxies. In particular, she has focused on making dark matter maps of clusters of galaxies, the largest known repositories of dark matter. Gravitational lensing by clusters can also be utilized to constrain dark energy models and she has been developing the methodology and techniques to do so. Her work has demonstrated that cluster strong lensing offers a unique and potentially powerful laboratory to test evolving dark energy models.

Natarajan is also actively engaged in deriving and understanding the mass assembly history of black holes over cosmic time. She is exploring a new channel for the formation of the first black holes and its observational consequences at high and low redshift. This channel produces massive seeds derived from the direct collapse of pre-galactic gas disks at the earliest epochs. This is in contrast to the conventional picture wherein light seeds are produced from the end state of the first stars. Current measurements of the masses of black holes hosted in nearby faint galaxies supports the existence of a massive seeding model. In earlier work, she argued for the existence of an upper limit to black hole masses in the universe by showing that black holes eventually stunt their own growth. This self-regulation implies the presence of ultra-massive black holes with capped masses in the centers of nearby galaxies that have since been observationally detected.

In addition to her academic position at Yale, she also currently holds the Sophie and Tycho Brahe Professorship of the Dark Cosmology Center, Niels Bohr Institute, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She has been recently elected to an honorary professorship for life at the University of Delhi, India.

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