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The Star Gazer Stars At TIME Gala

Last updated on: April 26, 2024 11:12 IST

At this year's TIME ball in New York City on Thursday, April 25, you would have run into a Coimbatore-born American scientist, looking lovely in Sabyasachi Mukherjee designer finery, who would most likely have been hanging out with Dua Lipa.


IMAGE: Priyamvada Natarajan at the TIME 100 Summit. Photograph: Kind courtesy Priyamvada Natarajan/X

The TIME 100 Gala, held annually in New York City, is one of the world's top high-brow parties.

A black-tie affair, attended by geniuses, thinkers, influencers and whizzes of all ages, races, nationalities, it sees pop stars mingling with scientists, chefs chatting up world leaders, businessmen and company head honchos talking to poets, each luminary a fan, perhaps, of the other.

It is a roomful of 100 of the globe's best talent that make it to TIME magazine's prestigious yearly list.

At this year's TIME ball, held at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City, on Thursday, April 25, you would definitely have run into a Coimbatore-born American scientist, looking lovely in Sabyasachi Mukherjee designer finery, who would most likely have been hanging out with British Kosovo Albanian artist Dua Lipa.

Yes, Dr Priyamvada Natarajan is a fan of the lady who shot to fame when New Rules reached the top of the British singles charts in 2017, and plans to buttonhole and chat with the celebrated singer, whose music she adores, especially Love Again and Levitating.

Perhaps Lipa might have asked for Dr Natarajan's autograph too, and they would maybe have discussed stars (celestial ones), London, England, Kosovo, Brexit, world views, (radical) optimism, singing (Dr Natarajan also sings), the cello and other musical instruments, the lyrics of Levitating, advocacy, the women's movement and several other areas of common interest.

Star-gazing is Dr Natarajan's field and she confesses to being utterly devoted to the cosmos. She is the Joseph S and Sophia S Fruton professor of astronomy and professor of physics at Yale, and chair of the department of astronomy there and the scope of Dr Natarajan's work is both vast and complex, but she recently gained special global recognition for her theories on how colossal black holes, lording the centre of galaxies in the universe, are formed, when new evidence and data received in 2023 via the James Webb Space Telescope, located some 1.5 million km from earth (at Lagrange point L2), miraculously confirmed her postulates and she then gained an honoured place on TIME's list of 100 most influential people in 2024.

Dr Natarajan has a string of decorations and awards to her name, but speaking to's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel over the phone from New Haven, Connecticut, she explains why this accolade means so much more to her: "I never imagined I'd be on this list. I'm really thrilled and, I have to admit, still pretty stunned. This award means so much because it's much more public. It's a very, very special recognition because when you're a scientist, working on your research, you're motivated by the love of the science, the excitement and the curiosity. That's what drives me.

"But you never really think that there is a way in which your work will be of interest, and will be recognised by the public at large. I engage with the public -- like a reasonable amount -- because I care really about the public understanding of science.

"This is not the kind of public acknowledgement one anticipates. It's very sweet and thrilling in that way."

The TIME 100 recognition, where she is in the company of Yulia Navalnaya, Dev Patel, Mark Cuban, Michael J Fox, Kylie Minogue, Taraji P Henson, Sofia Coppola and 92 more, could make her almost a household name...

She laughs at that. "Well, it's pretty awesome."

Photograph: Kind courtesy Priyamvada Natarajan/X

Dr Natarajan received an e-mail mid-March informing her that she had been selected by TIME. Initially, wary that it was not an authentic mail, she verified it, "When I first heard, I have to admit that I was a little suspicious. I sort of double checked that this was not spam (smile in her voice). One has to these days, right?"

She had not ever dreamt she could make it to such a roster. "I had no idea I was under consideration. I had never even imagined that I would be on a list like this. If it was a list -- you know -- of the most active scientists, or something like that, then yes. Those kinds of things, sure, are something that one can think about."

Astronomy is far, far greater than a job, a profession, research or a way of life for Dr Natarajan.

It keeps her centred. And her own world in impeccable order.

"For me, astronomy is a passion. It's a compulsion. I am utterly seduced by the work. I think, in many ways, I find the real world quite messy, difficult and complicated. And unfair. Unequal. Thinking about the cosmos, thinking about these bigger, deeper questions helps me kind of actually stay grounded and cope with the world. I find that this kind of outlet for my imagination and creativity has really been what drives me, what motivates me to actually live. I would say that it gives me a sense of purpose."

IMAGE: Priyamvada Natarajan with US President Joe Biden at the Deepavali party, November 7, 2020. Photograph: Kind courtesy Priyamvada Natarajan/X

Dr Natarajan, quite smitten with her discipline, then goes on to talk wondrously about the unknowable secrets of the fathomless, boundless universe and how profound it all is.

"Like all humans, I am really intrigued by the night sky. In particular, I'm very attracted to these sorts of mysterious, invisible components of the universe that you cannot touch, you cannot really directly see it. You have to infer their presence indirectly."

She speaks too, in awe, of the challenges the Universe is always dangling out to her, temptingly -- waggling a welcoming hand/gauntlet -- that an inquiring, inquisitive person like herself just cannot ignore. "To me, it's been an ultimate challenge. It really sort of eggs me on, because a lot of these entities that I work on, they're at the limits of our current knowledge.

"We're really figuring things out and we've made a lot of progress. But there are many, many other open questions. It's this incredible puzzle. Finding and locating the pieces in terms of our understanding and fitting them... That's really beautiful."

Dr Natarajan arrived in Yale in 2000, after completing her bachelor's on a scholarship and master's at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a PhD in astrophysics from the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK, under well-known cosmologist and astrophysicist Dr Martin Rees.

Dr Priyamvada Natarajan's areas of research:

My work has been focused on the invisible components of the universe: dark matter, dark energy, and black holes.

Dark matter is the largest repository of matter in the universe. That's nearly 90 per cent of all the matter in the universe. It's invisible and inert, and therefore unseen. It cannot be directly detected. Its presence is only indirectly inferred by the gravitational pull that that matter exerts on objects in its vicinity. And all the matter that we are made of, all the atoms that we are made of, everything on the periodic table, for example, is only 4 per cent of the overall cosmic inventory of the universe.

We don't really know what dark matter (exactly) is. We know how dark matter manifests in the universe. We know it gravitates. It exerts attractive gravitational effects on itself and normal matter. But we don't know what particle actually constitutes dark matter.

My work has been trying to indirectly infer and map out, spatially, how this dark matter is distributed, with a view to getting a clue on what it might be made of in terms of its particle content.

It is (about) connecting large scale, cosmic scale observations in astronomy, to particle physics entities that might actually be the dark matter particle -- it's remarkable that we can do this and connect these two disparate realms of the Universe, the exceedingly small and the majestically large.

In my work on black holes, I've been interested in the formation of the first black holes and how they grow and evolve over cosmic time. We know now, that almost every galaxy, at least in the nearby universe, appears to harbour a central supermassive black hole right at the centre. Our galaxy hosts a supermassive black hole that is about 4 million times the mass of our sun.

The question is, how do black holes end up in the centers of galaxies? How did it form? And what is its growth history?

So, there have been ideas, traditional ideas, for the formation of the first black holes, and all black holes -- the explosion of the first stars that leave behind a little black hole -- this is the work done by the brilliant astrophysicist Chandrasekhar . My work and the work of my research group has focused on alternate ways to make black holes. For the last 20 years, we've been working on a model that is called direct collapse of gas to form black holes (DCBHs) in the very early universe. Since no information can actually exit a black hole, we cannot extract how a black hole actually formed by measuring the motions of stars around it or where it ends up.

The clue to how a black hole might have formed -- if it had formed in a different way from the traditional way -- would come from the relationship that a black hole has to the galaxy it's hosted by close to the formation epoch. We need to be able to peer back into the depths of time and the James Webb Space Telescope is exactly that kind of time machine. We had predicted a very specific kind of relationship between the mass of the black hole and properties of the galaxy. And a galaxy of just the kind we predicted was detected last year by James Webb, providing very compelling evidence that black holes might form via direct collapse. So, there may be multiple pathways in the universe to make black holes.

Her roots are firmly Indian. "Well, obviously, India is very critical to who I am because it influenced my formation, in a fundamental, foundational way. I am very connected to India"

She spent her childhood and teen schooling years in India, in New Delhi, as "a middle-class kid with privilege" because of her parents' professional backgrounds - her dad, Venkatesa Natarajan was a respected educationist and her mom Lalitha Natarajan a sociologist and geographer -- and their unconventional but enlightened upbringing focused on knowledge, discovery and scholarly pursuits.

Priya, or 'Pri', as she was often called, reached adulthood in a "house full of books" with loads of intellectual stimulation, memorable around-the-dinner-table family conversations and encountering "all manner of people who went through Delhi -- scholars, writers, artists came home to us (because of her father). I grew up meeting an incredible set of minds. And I was in awe of so many people that I met, the talented, creative people. I was very fortunate and had an incredible advantage."

She came from an academic family and describes her parents to have been "remarkable, incredible" people, who were both encouraging, nurturing, while being traditional.

"I won the birth lottery with my parents. I have wonderful, supportive parents. They basically let me explore and do whatever I wanted. They facilitated it.

"But my parents were also very traditional. I learned Bharata Natyam, Carnatic music. I had a very well-rounded education. As a young person growing up in India, I was interested in everything. I was interested in the arts. I was interested in history. I was interested, of course, in all the sciences.

She adds, putting it across very well and fittingly: "I was very enthusiastic and have a sort of really love of life that I think is very characteristic of an Indian upbringing. We all grow up with an extended community, with celebration, with a lot of joy and happiness.

"I have like wonderful memories of my childhood. They sustain me to this day, and give me strength. I realise how a strong psychological, emotional foundation is really key to doing anything in the world successfully. And being a really balanced human being."

Apart from her parents, she credits various teachers and guides who inspired her, in the years when her mind was opening up and maturing, including an American literature teacher in school. "I had a wonderful education and a fantastic time during my schooling throughout. I had great mentors, particularly someone who was really important to me, because she gave me my first taste of research when I was already in high school. She really took a chance on me. She was the director of the Nehru Planetarium, Dr Nirupama Raghavan.

"This was in the late eighties and that was a different time and it was very unusual for a high schooler to do research. Now, of course, there are high schoolers writing emails to me every day saying they want to do research."

IMAGE: Dr Priyamvada Natarajan at the TIME 100 Summit. Photograph: Kind courtesy Priyamvada Natarajan/X

Dr Natarajan believes that astronomy and science not only bring order and calm to her environment and personal space, but ought to be the band aid to the world at large. When more and more scientists, such as herself, are recognised for "public" awards, it shows their influence is growing and that their work is looked at as impactful beyond just their academic community.

"We have a lot of global existential crises. Some manmade. Some for which the resolution is completely within our hands. And some for which, I think, increasingly, the solution may be slipping through our hands, like the climate crisis; we have to act now.

"One can argue that science and technology have brought on many of these issues. Obviously, science and technology have enabled our capacity to create as well as exploit and extract energy/resources from the earth. But I actually think science and technology also hold the key to the solutions for all these global existential problems.

"We have to be optimistic and rely on science and technology and new inventions to really get us out of this bind. We can still take action and we can mitigate the climate crisis (for instance), save our planet and ensure our longevity as a species on earth."

On life on other planets:

There's a very high probability that life exists elsewhere.

But the question is that we may not recognise it, because it may not be carbon-based life, for example. It could be silicon-based life. In fact, it could be completely different and likely to be very different. It could be something that we can't even imagine.

Even on earth, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out correctly, that if you run the tape of evolution back in time and restarted it and re-ran it, evolution may not produce us! It might produce something else. There is so much randomness that is part of the process that the outcome is pretty unpredictable. So on earth, where we understand all the physics and the chemistry, if you rerun evolution, you may end up with a different outcome.

Who knows all the kinds of life forms that are possible elsewhere? I think it's a very, very exciting question, and the prospects of trying to begin figuring this out are looking really good, very bright.

The Indian American astronomer also brings up the fundamental "paradox about science and technology" which is that man invents and shapes science, but also, at the same time, limits science with, ironically, his ignorance and inconsistent lack of belief in science, which she also dwells on in her 2016 book, Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos. "This paradox is much more relevant for the United States. It's a country which is at the forefront of science and technology, but there's very powerful denialism of science, which is worrisome. The recognition of scientists (via awards like TIME 100) and the important role they play in society, maybe that will shift that disbelief in science."

Teaching ("I love teaching and teach all courses at all levels for, non-science majors, for undergraduate science, physics majors, as well as graduate students. The courses I have the most fondness for is the introduction to cosmology for non-science majors. I devised this course. I've been teaching it for a while. I absolutely love it because of the different kinds of students who are majoring in drama, music, English, economics, biology, come to take this class"); research; writing papers and articles for other publication; advocacy (as the chair of the Yale's Women Faculty Forum, working for "equity in the academic workplace, ensuring that women and other minoritized groups, get to be seen and heard and their contributions be acknowledged"); reaching out to the public on scientific issues ("I'm very committed to improving access to science"); travel for her astronomy work... These are just a few of the mind-bogglingly numerous tasks Dr Natarajan balances, like a many-handed, supernatural being of another galaxy, on a day-to-day basis.

But ask her how she unwinds and the schedule for her free-time activities is as tightly packed -- it is not so easy to distinguish her 'on time' from her time off.

A Renaissance person, Dr Natarajan says, "I love the arts. My intellectual journey has a slightly dark past, in the sense that I have an unfinished PhD in the history and philosophy of science. I just got completely seduced by science, so I never quite went back to finish the dissertation. (As a result) I have a real deep interest and collaborate on bridging the so-called two cultures. I actually do not believe that. It's a very dangerous distinction to mark them as two distinct cultures. I think science and the humanities are all part of the same set of creative human activities.

"(To wind down) I mostly read. During COVID-19, of course, like everyone else, I had also developed a Netflix addiction. I think I watched pretty much anything that was there on documentaries, crime series, etc." Favourites, although hard to pick, were Succession, Queen's Gambit, Bridgerton."

She is fond of going on long walks. She meditates. "I love to cook for my friends and host a lot of dinner parties. I typically work my way through several cookbooks at a time -- currently I am cooking recipes from Yotam Ottonlenghi's Plenty More. I listen to music of all kinds. But I also love culture. And museums.

"You cannot get me out of a museum. I often tire all my friends and family when we go to museums because I want to spend more time there.

"One of the other joys of being in a very international discipline, like astrophysics, is that we have these amazing conferences in some of the most beautiful places in the world." Like Aspen, Chile, India, Hong Kong, Mexico, Hawaii, Spain, Slovenia, Tokyo, South Africa, Patagonia...

She writes poetry, but not to get published, more for herself, although she might write poems for friends on special occasions.

Dr Natarajan would like to write more, not poetry necessarily, and receiving the Time honour has made that more imperative. "When things like this happen, it's a moment of introspection. I have to let it sink in. I've had a lot of obstacles, as almost anyone who is pursuing many goals has. There are always highs and lows on any journey. When all this din kind of settles, I hope to have some quiet time to reflect, think and write some more."

IMAGE: Dr Priyamvada Natarajan, left, then an associate professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, accepts the India Abroad Face of the Future 2009 Award, with inaugural Face of the Future winner, Princeton University Professor Manjul Bhargava (centre) and Jamie Haenggi of Vonage, the event's presenting sponsor. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

The run-up to the TIME gala was rather exciting for Dr Natarajan. Sabyasachi had offered to dress her for the evening. Numerous interviews had taken their toll on her throat. She felt the adrenaline of being at such a starry event would instantly mend her throat.

The back-of-the-envelope list of who she planned to have a tete-a-tete with at the Lincoln Center evening was growing by the minute -- all 99, if she is lucky! "First of all, it's a complete honour to be on the same list as my colleague, Akiko Iwasaki, the immunologist from Yale as well. Sort of thrilled that I'm going to wear something styled by Sabyasachi... He very kindly offered to dress me.

"I'm excited to meet all of them. They all sound incredibly interesting. Obviously, I'm a real fan of Dua Lipa's music, so would love to meet her.

"I haven't yet eaten at Asma Khan's restaurants in London, so I am really looking forward to talking to her, meeting her. And, of course, Satya Nadella. Pretty much everybody on the list I would love to meet and talk to."

Thursday would have seen Dr Natarajan at her busiest socially making strategic beelines across every part of the room to greet umpteen of her favourite celebrities. She had said before the gala, "I want to mingle and circulate and I'm hoping I would be in my most enthusiastic form for socialisation that night.

There were two people she wished were around April 25 to celebrate her reaching a place in the prestigious TIME 100 registry.

Her dad. And Dr Nirupama Raghavan.

"I am really missing my father, who passed away last year. I wish he would have been around to see all of this. Dr Raghavan also passed away, sadly. She's not here to see me soar."

But much that is essential is imperceptible to the naked eyes, goes a fave Priya quote. There may have been hordes of miniature sentient beings on far galaxies, that she peers at faithfully, waving and cheering for Dr Natarajan on April 25. And those who would have wanted to see her fly might have watched from somewhere else too.

That's a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, a novella about the wee royal who visits many planets, and it is also one of her best-loved passages, quite apt for a cosmos devotee/premi. 'Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye'.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/