Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos

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9780300204414: Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos

For all curious readers, a lively introduction to radical ideas and discoveries that are transforming our knowledge of the universe

This book provides a tour of the “greatest hits” of cosmological discoveries—the ideas that reshaped our universe over the past century. The cosmos, once understood as a stagnant place, filled with the ordinary, is now a universe that is expanding at an accelerating pace, propelled by dark energy and structured by dark matter. Priyamvada Natarajan, our guide to these ideas, is someone at the forefront of the research—an astrophysicist who literally creates maps of invisible matter in the universe. She not only explains for a wide audience the science behind these essential ideas but also provides an understanding of how radical scientific theories gain acceptance.

The formation and growth of black holes, dark matter halos, the accelerating expansion of the universe, the echo of the big bang, the discovery of exoplanets, and the possibility of other universes—these are some of the puzzling cosmological topics of the early twenty-first century. Natarajan discusses why the acceptance of new ideas about the universe and our place in it has never been linear and always contested even within the scientific community. And she affirms that, shifting and incomplete as science always must be, it offers the best path we have toward making sense of our wondrous, mysterious universe.

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From the Author:

How do you map the universe?
Explorers once understood Earth by mapping what they saw. If I only included visible objects in my map of the universe, it would show a mere four percent of the cosmos. Equipped with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, I use gravity to see how invisible “dark matter” bends light from stars and galaxies. This provides a remarkably detailed picture of the structure of the universe.

Is dark matter real?
Scientists know a lot about how dark matter is distributed in the universe and the critical role it plays in the formation of galaxies. Dark matter is mysterious because it lacks much personality—it interacts very weakly with ordinary matter (like you), it moves sluggishly, and it accumulates in lumps. You are right to be skeptical—the history of science is replete with abandoned invisible explanations (ether, miasma, and phlogiston)—but there is much evidence that dark matter is real.

Could a figure like Einstein exist today?
No and yes. Many fields are so specialized that it is hard to imagine one person making an Einsteinian impact. That said, the Internet makes it much easier for an outsider to garner the attention of the scientific establishment. Of course she would still need transformative, innovative, and radical ideas.

Where will we find the next radical scientific ideas?
We now have copious data in cosmology, neuroscience, genetics, and material science. Finding and comprehending meaningful patterns in that data will allow us to mine for fundamental principles and new frontiers for exploration. This is how I think we are going to find the next radical idea that could upend everything!  

About the Author:

Priyamvada Natarajan is professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University and holds the Sophie and Tycho Brahe Professorship at the Dark Center, Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and an honorary professorship at the University of Delhi, India.

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