A Theoretical Physicist Dives Into Black Holes

How they shape galaxies, and her favorite fictional depictions of them.

Lurking at the center of nearly every galaxy, there is a hungry black hole.

Some can grow millions to billions times larger than the mass of our sun. Their strong gravitational field allows them to engulf nearby planets, gas, and stars. Not even the speed of light can escape the intense pull of the membrane of a black hole, or event horizon — what researchers often refer to as the point of no return. science and space science of universe

science and space science of universe
Priyamvada Natarajan. Credit: G.A. Miller science and space science of universe

Despite their abundance and looming presence in the universe, these massive, majestic objects remain a bottomless mystery to astrophysicists. science and space science of universe

“They’re the most enigmatic objects in the universe,” Priyamvada Natarajan, a theoretical astrophysicist at Yale University. “They’re crazy cool objects given what they do to light, what they do to matter around them, and so on … They are the strangest objects.” science and space science of universe

How did you become interested in studying black holes?
I have always been in awe of the mysterious and enigmatic. The sense of mystery coupled with a lack of total comprehension has attracted me to study elusive phenomena in the universe. What seems just a tiny bit out of reach in terms of being abstract and hard to fathom beckons. In fact, this is an utterly human instinct; we are all curious about black holes because they are so extraordinary. science and space science of universe

“I have always been in awe of the mysterious and enigmatic.” science and space science of universe

Black holes have this bizarre region called the event horizon that appears to mark the boundary between the knowable and unknowable, which I find personally very intriguing. Black holes and dark matter — the two key research areas that I work on — are tantalizing in very similar ways to me: We have many lines of independent evidence revealing their existence indirectly (as they cannot be mapped directly), yet their true nature remains elusive at the moment. It’s just the kind of challenge that draws me in. science and space science of universe

Why are black holes piquing so much interest among researchers and the public?
Over the past 50 years, black holes have transitioned from being an exotic mathematical curiosity, a solution to a complex equation, to classes of real astronomical objects whose presence can be inferred indirectly. As per our rapidly evolving current understanding, black holes have actually moved from being marginal to playing a pivotal role in modulating the assembly of stars in galaxies that populate the universe. science and space science of universe

Black holes have had a major resurgence in terms of research due to a grand convergence in our theoretical understanding, the wealth of observational data and sophistication of computational methods available to model them. This alignment of the various approaches to scientifically understand black holes has been in motion for the past two decades or so. Of course, the recent spectacular discovery of gravitational waves from colliding black holes reported by the LIGO collaboration has been emblematic of this convergence. There is a lot of new exciting data on black holes that we are currently gathering on nearby dormant supermassive black holes lurking at the centers of galaxies, on distant actively feeding black holes shining as quasars, and, of course, on the black hole hosted at the center of our own galaxy. science and space science of universe

As for interest amongst the curious public, black holes have always had a hold on the popular imagination given their bizarre properties, primary amongst which is that they are extreme objects that signify a point of no return even for light! science and space science of universe

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