Mapping the Heavens Lecture
Julie and I had the chance to attend a wonderful lecture by Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan on March 8, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. She was speaking about her book of the same name (Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos) and giving a detailed but still easy-to-follow history of how our understanding has changed about the universe.
Dr. Natarajan, through a series of slides and pictures, helped to carry us along from the earliest scientific ideas around our environment all the way to the current understanding of Dark Matter, one of her specialties. What is Dark Matter and why is it significant? It turns out that everything we’ve typically known and are able to see about the universe (such as all of the elements that make us up, the Earth, the planets, the stars — everything) is only about 4% of the matter in the universe! Can you imagine? This so-called Dark Matter, that we are continuing to better understand, makes up the gigantic remainder of what’s actually out there.
It was especially awesome to attend this lecture by Priya this particular night because March 8th is International Women’s
Day. Priya was born in India and was introduced to nature and wonders of the skies by her father. She went on to do some cool things quite early, like writing a program on a home computer to produce monthly sky charts for a national newspaper. She went on to receive her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and her PhD in Astrophysics at Cambridge University. She is now a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University.
I’ve been a life-long astronomy fan, but I haven’t been keeping current in the fast-moving world of astrophysics in recent years. So, this lecture was an excellent way to understand where we are right now. Julie loved it, as well, and we both thought it was highly approachable in how she presented the material. I incredibly envy students at Yale that would be able to attend her lectures there, as she is an amazing speaker in being both articulate and down-to-earth.
While astrophysics seems like a heavy topic, don’t be scared off or think this won’t keep
your interest. We strongly recommend getting her book above, as it’ll absolutely fascinate you. She has a child-like wonder about the world and her wonderful writing style will beautifully bring you along in the story.
There were many great comments she made and one of these sticks in my mind. Just as her book title sounds (e.g. Mapping…) she’s always been fascinated by maps; from ancient maps all the way to the dark matter maps she is making today as a recognized leader in this field. She pointed out how “maps illustrate what someone knows at a given moment.” It’s a snapshot of knowledge conveyed about their understanding at that time. I suppose this is logical, but it resonated with me in a in a poignant way.