Black Hole Hunter: Priya N.

  • Posted 01.10.18
  • NOVA

As a child, theoretical astrophysicist Priya Natarajan loved atlas. As an adult, she maps the cosmos.

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Running Time: 03:55

Transcript

Black Hole Hunter: Priyamvada Natarajan

Published January 10, 2018

Priyamvada Natarajan: Black holes tease me. It's my disposition to be drawn to the invisible, the untouchable. And, no matter how well you understand them, they remain unreachable…the perfect cosmic teaser for me.

I'm Priyamvada Natarajan, theoretical astrophysicist.

Onscreen: WHAT WERE YOUR INTERESTS AS A KID?

Natarajan: So, I was obsessed with atlases when I was young…all kinds of maps, but in particular celestial and terrestrial maps.

Onscreen: HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO BECOME AN ASTROPHYSICIST?

Natarajan: When I was very young, you know, I looked through a telescope and a microscope, and I decided that it was the telescope. There was something about the cosmos being a little bit out of reach that really attracted me. But, you know, my first foray into research was when my dad brought me a Commodore 64—this completely dates me…and this was a time when it was not common for a kid in India to have her own computer. I taught myself how to program, and I was itching to do something.

The Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi, where I grew up, had a new director. I showed up at her office, and I said, "Can I solve a problem? You know, I have this computer, and I know how to program it." So she said, "Oh, given that you're a bit of a map nut, write a program that would generate a star chart." It was a hard problem, and I sat down for six weeks, and I wrote the program.

She didn't quite believe I had done it. She said, "Well, Priya, this is great, but what if you move to Boston, or to Brisbane? Wouldn’t you want to know the night sky there?" I said, "Doctor Raghavanon, don't worry. Punch in the latitude and longitude of any place on Earth, and I can plot the star chart for you." She was pretty stunned.

These were not things that no one had figured out before, right? But I was figuring them out for the first time. I was hooked.

Onscreen: PRIYA’S LATER EFFORTS INCLUDE THIS MAP OF DARK MATTER IN THE UNIVERSE AND THIS MAP OF BLACK HOLE TURBULENCE.

Natarajan: Black holes started out as a solution to Einstein's equations. And the mathematics gave you this very elegant, very, very compact object: the singularity. That fundamental limit where all known laws of physics break down.

Nothingness. Both infinitely large or infinitely small. The mathematical solution was really beautiful, so a mathematician would think that a black hole was a very elegant object. Whereas, a physicist would find them very awkward, physically unnatural, both the concept of zero and the concept of infinity are very problematic.

It’s very hard to imagine nothingness. In fact, Einstein did not believe that they were actually real. He thought it was just a mathematical curiosity. So, it took a long time for people to even start looking for them. And since black holes were discovered, we've been routinely finding them.

The universe is replete with black holes. We now have a whole range of masses and sizes. We've detected all the black holes in the center of our galaxy and nearby galaxies.

Onscreen: WHAT ARE BLACK HOLES TO YOU?

Natarajan: They are breathing, violent, fire-eating demons…so complex, so richly structured, they push our knowing to the limits enticing us to want to know more.

Credits

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Digital Producer
Vincent Liota
BLACK HOLE APOCALYPSE
Written, Produced and Directed by
Rushmore DeNooyer
Executive Producer
Chris Schmidt
Editors
Ryan Shepheard
Rob Kirwan

FOOTAGE AND GRAPHICS

Visuals
Getty
NASA
Shutterstock
Commodore 64 footage courtesy of Fran Blanche

SFX

Music
­APM

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