Hiranya Peiris Foto: Niklas Björling
Hiranya Peiris - Foto: Niklas Björling


As a child, Hiranya Peiris joined the Young Astronomers’ Association in Sri Lanka, with science fiction author Arthur C Clarke as its patron. Her parents encouraged her interest and skills in maths and physics. Sri Lanka´s woman prime minister (the world´s first) Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her mother, a civil engineer, were among her female role models.
“I watched my mother building bridges in a sari,” says Hiranya Peiris.

Moving to Manchester, England at the age of 16, her teachers discovered her talent and suggested she apply to Cambridge. The rest is history.   

When Hiranya Peiris started studying the universe in the 1990s, there was little solid data and lots of speculation. Two satellite missions – which she participated in – have since generated huge amounts of data related to the cosmic microwave background radiation, allowing cosmologists to track our universe from 380 000 years after the Big Bang to today, some 13.8 billion years later.

Interdisciplinarity a great attractor

Clearly, such complexity calls for collaboration of scientists from different disciplines. Indeed, inter-disciplinarity was a great attractor when Peiris in 2016 accepted the post as Director at OKC. “Few other institutes in the world have this broad scope, connecting physics, astronomy, mathematics, theory and experimentation to answer deep scientific questions about fundamental physics,” says Hiranya Peiris.

Being multitalented, she is familiar with people questioning the compatibility of her broad scientific interests.  “If someone looks at my published papers, they may think my research interests are very fragmented but to me my work is a holistic endeavor.”

This ability may be linked to Hiranya Peiris being a synesthete. I ask her if she thinks in numbers, sees sounds or hears colours, stereotypic descriptions of synaesthesia.
“Not quite. I experience the world in ways that are hard to explain. For me, everything is connected. Faced with a complex problem, I grasp the big picture and almost see the answer from the start. Then, I might have to work my way “backwards” to map out the details,” says Hiranya Peiris.

Driven by ethical imperative

Although describing herself as a private – even shy – person, she is today a well-known public educator, lecturing to audiences of millions.
“It was extremely difficult in the beginning, but I went for a PhD in the US where shy people don't get anywhere. “

This role as educator seems fueled in part by her sense of civic duty. “I am a very ethical person. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I was taught that if someone does something good for you, you are bound to give something back.

Hiranya Peiris also feels a strong urge to facilitate public understanding of science and influence policy. “Astronomy is a gateway to helping people understand and appreciate science. All of us have experienced the fascination of looking up at the sky, wondering why are we here and so on. Popularizing science is especially vital now as experts and logical thinking are distrusted. Scientists also need to be involved when decision-makers go from facts to formulating policy. “

Investigate a new area every couple of years

It is a logistical challenge to juggle two high-power jobs in different countries but one which she enjoys. “I get easily bored, and sometimes if things get a bit stuck at one end, perhaps they will move at the other end. Every couple of years, I investigate a new area, as a complete novice. Right now, I am looking at “deep learning”, an advanced technique of artificial intelligence,” says Hiranya Peiris.

Her main advice to students is to focus less on passing exams for their own sake and more on discovering what you like and are good at, while challenging yourself to step outside your comfort zone to improve yourself.

Hiranya Peiris - Foto: Niklas Björling
Hiranya Peiris - Foto: Niklas Björling


On succeeding as a woman in a man´s world, Hiranya Peiris admits to having experienced both gender-based and ethnic stereotyping. “But I didn't let it bother me. I have thick skin and am very stubborn. If someone tries to prevent me from doing something I want to do, I try harder and power through. “

Of course, everyone is not like that, she continues.
“Strangely, I never thought about being a woman in science until I was a fairly senior faculty member and saw how imbalances in the field impacted junior researchers. Negative comments at conferences, being left out of meetings and collaborations, having your ideas dismissed, little things that add up over time. I witnessed how stressful this was and how it drives not just women out but minorities in general,“ says Hiranya Peiris.

Working against discrimination in science

Peiris found that little was written on discrimination in science. Today, she participates in e.g., formulating equal opportunity policies and reforming academic procedures around sexual harassment and bullying. “Metoo has helped immensely in raising awareness, but we have actually had this grassroots movement in astronomy since 2015. “

What is your take on the potential of science to solve big future challenges?

”In terms of climate change, I am pessimistic, as we have the knowledge required yet seem not to act fast enough. In my own field, I am very optimistic about answering big questions but then the questions just get bigger. My ultimate big question is why is there something rather than nothing in the universe? I don't think I will get there in my lifetime but I want to try. “

Brexit a source of huge concern
And there are other immediate challenges.

“Brexit is a source of huge concern for my research field. The UK benefits hugely from participation in H2020 funding schemes in particular, and freedom of movement is a key ingredient in researcher mobility, training and the development of excellence. More broadly, international collaboration and cooperation are central to progress in this research area, “ says Hiranya Peiris.  

Text: David Finer
Photo: Niklas Björling


Hiranya Peiris

Born: I was born in Sri Lanka, a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean.

Family: Mostly in London, but my partner also has a part-time position in Stockholm.

Works: Half-time posts as Director of the Oskar Klein Centre (OKC), a collaboration between Stockholm University and Royal Institute of Technology, and Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Cosmoparticle Initiative at University College London. But it´s like having two full-time jobs; I have to be super-organized.

If I were Dean for a day: So many demands on faculty - mainly from bureaucracy, e-mails and meetings - compromise our time and impact negatively on students. I would try to push back against this fragmentation to create more time for reflection and deep thinking.

If I had had another career: As a child I dreamed of becoming an astronaut and up until around when I took my PhD, I was a very good classical pianist. Now I sound terrible, so I don´t play anymore.

My favourite place on campus:  I don´t get around much on campus, but there is a corridor at AlbaNova, where I enjoy watching the patterns made by reflected sunlight on the wall.

Hobbies: I like hiking in nature, especially in places with interesting landscapes and extreme weather, like Iceland or the Faroe Islands. The isolation allows you to think. 

Last read book: “The Lost Continent” by Bill Bryson. I also read a lot of science fiction and detective stories.