A tale of exploding stars

13 Dec 2011

Author: Heather Jacobs

Photography: Gary Heery


Brian Schmidt, Australia's first Nobel Prize winner for Physics in almost a hundred years, talks about what the honour means for him, and his work.
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When Brian Schmidt relocated to Canberra with his Australian wife in 1994 he was equipped with a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard and a burning desire to discover the ultimate fate of the universe.

Seventeen years on, that desire has changed our understanding of the universe and led to Schmidt winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. The 44-year-old astrophysicist, who is now a professor at the Australian National University (ANU), shares the $1.5 million award with two US scientists – his collaborator Professor Adam Riess from Johns Hopkins University, who he’s known since his Harvard days – and Professor Saul Perlmutter from the University of California, Berkeley, who was part of a competitive team.

Schmidt is the first Australian to win a Nobel Prize in Physics since 1915. Born in Montana, and raised in Alaska, he came to Canberra to take up a post-doctoral fellowship at the Mt Stromlo Observatory and ANU.

He lives on a vineyard outside Canberra with his wife and two children and has joint Australian and US citizenship. He was helping cook dinner when the congratulatory call came through from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His first thought was that his graduate students were getting pretty good at the Swedish accent this year.

“You just go a little weak in the knees and a little dizzy,” he says. “It’s very exciting but you feel … bewildered would be the best way to describe it.”

The 24 hours that followed the announcement was the busiest of his life, with the attendant media attention putting Schmidt in the unlikely position of being a scientific superstar. There was a meeting in Canberra with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and a call from the White House.

Schmidt says the Nobel win symbolises what can be done in Australia. He credits ANU with resourcing him to be in charge of an international team – the High-z Supernova Search Team – at just 27.

“I arrived in Canberra young, green, post-doc, and was given an independent position and help with strategic resources to undertake this big program,” says Schmidt. “The ANU broke the mould and supported me directly, based on what they knew about me coming from Harvard and what my plan was and that really differentiates it from other places in Australia and the world. There’s a great deal of scientific infrastructure here – Mount Stromlo is one of the world’s best institutions – so I had the people around me to help me make good decisions and all those things came together to be exactly what I needed at the time.”

The two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae (exploding stars) whose light was fainter than expected - a sign the universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate, rather than slowing down as expected. This means the universe will end in a whimper, rather than go out with a bang.

“If you were worried about the universe dying in a fiery crash this would be reassuring,” says Schmidt. “It’s just going to fizzle out slowly, but my view is that it’s pretty bleak that the universe sort of just fizzles. As Neil Young said, ‘it’s better to burn out than fade away’, but the universe appears to be just fading away. It will take billions upon billions of years, it’s not going to happen in our lifetime, but it will eventually happen.”

The universe’s fate may have remained unknown if Schmidt hadn’t changed his mind about becoming a meteorologist. His father is a biologist so he gravitated towards a career in science. He loved astronomy and decided to focus on that until he sorted out what he was going to do with his life – and of course his astronomy career took off and he never ended up having to sort out what to do with his life.

Before Harvard, Schmidt studied for a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Arizona where he won the most outstanding student in physics prize.

Edward Hubble was the one who discovered that the universe was expanding, but the expectation was the universe’s gravity would slow it down over time.

“We were intending to measure how much the universe had slowed down, and we would eventually be able to see if it was going to stop its expansion and start crashing down onto itself or whether it would go on forever,” says Schmidt.

What they found instead was that the universe was speeding up, which meant that gravity wasn’t working as they were expecting. The only way to explain the measurements was that the universe is full of energy that is tied to space itself.

“And that energy, according to Einstein’s version of gravity, will push on itself and cause the universe to run away just like what we had observed. So, it would seem that by discovering an accelerating universe we discovered 75% of the universe.”

Schmidt recalls that when they first saw the data they assumed they’d made a mistake. After all, it contradicted ideas held for almost a century that the universe was expanding as a consequence of the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago.

“I was looking at the data and we certainly thought it was crazy,” he says. “I expected a huge amount of scepticism, and there was that, but there were quite a lot of people saying, ‘this has got to be right’. Partially because of the circumstances, which saw two teams who were competing come up with the same answer simultaneously, so that gave it credence, but the findings also fixed a lot of problems in cosmology.”

It also proved that Albert Einstein’s ‘cosmological constant’ theory had in fact been on the right track – he just gave up on the idea too soon.

“I don’t know what Einstein would think about this,” says Schmidt. “My guess is he would be struggling – it’s really a crazy thing to have in the universe. He invented this energy but he later said it was his biggest blunder. Whether he would be like, ‘oh yeah’ and go back and reverse himself I don’t know. But I think that discovering the accelerating universe was something that was going to happen and I was very fortunate that I was born at the right time to make that discovery.”

There’s been plenty of recognition along the way, but nothing quite compares to winning the Nobel Prize. The research was named as the 1998 Science magazine’s ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ and Schmidt won the Australian Government’s inaugural Malcolm McIntosh prize and the 2001 Australian Academy of Science Pawsey Medal. Then there’s the Vainu Bappu Medal from the Astronomical Society of India in 2002, the Shaw Prize for Astronomy, the Gruber Prize for Cosmology in 2007 and the ANU’s Peter Baume Award in 2010.

When Schmidt turned up to teach at ANU the morning after the announcement his students greeted him with a standing ovation. Schmidt enjoys the connection to students he gets from teaching, saying it makes him feel younger and he’s inspired by the next generation of scientists.

Astrophysicist Tamara Davis, who was awarded the 2009 L’Oreal Women in Science Award, says few people have had as profound an impact on her life as Schmidt.

“Brian is incredibly generous with his knowledge, his ideas, and his time.”

The 36-year-old describes the most fortunate moment in her career as the one when Schmidt invited her to work with him on his supernovae research. She joined the team in 2003, and was introduced to Perlmutter’s group in Berkeley. The rival group were working on the design of a new space telescope that would study supernovae in unprecedented detail and had agreed to pool their knowledge. Over the past decade they have discovered hundreds more supernovae that have confirmed the original result.

“The revelation I had while working with Brian, Saul, and Adam, is that extraordinary things can be achieved by (almost) ordinary people,” says Davis. “Brian himself will tell you that he was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time with the right collaborators and the right support to make this amazing discovery. But fortune favours the well-prepared and Brian and his collaborators acted on the opportunity they saw, and their brilliance lay in the accuracy and attention to detail that they brought to their observations.

“The final step was then actually trusting in their own work and accepting the strange results that the data were showing them. This is why I find Brian so inspiring. He is one of those great figures whose does not use his brilliance to awe you, but instead shows you that brilliance is within your own grasp.”

While the win has taken his ‘star’ status beyond the science community to the mainstream with an endless round of media interviews and even an invitation to sit for a portrait for the Archibald Prize – Australia’s top award for portraiture – there’s plenty more work to be done in understanding the universe. This includes putting the last tweaks to the SkyMapper, one of the most powerful telescopes of its type in the world, which will be used to map the southern sky.

Oh, and then there’s that small challenge of understanding how the first stars and galaxy formed 14 billion years ago.

Australia along with South Africa, has been shortlisted to host the Square Kilometre Array. Costing $2 billion to build, the telescope’s site will be selected in 2012 by a global consortium of astronomers from 20 countries. Schmidt views the SKA as a great opportunity for Australia to help develop the technology and to lead that.

“We are the absolute best place in the world to put this telescope, we have this great western Australian desert which has practically no radio interference, we have this very advanced internet coming in and these things really make a great place to put the telescope,” he says.

Overall, he thinks the future looks bright for Australian science but warns that it should never be taken for granted, that we need to be very strategic about how we invest in people, programs and research.

“It’s always nice to have more money, but what’s even more important is to ensure the money you do spend is spent strategically,” he says. “The thing we can do well is identify how we can get the biggest bang for our buck and ensure we have a continuity – you know, a stable research environment – so people can think strategically over five to ten years because things in science are five to ten years in the making and unfortunately political decisions tend to be a little faster than that and we tend to come unstuck because of that.”

Schmidt often gets courted by universities around the world, but the discussions don’t get very far.

“I was asked a couple of years ago by a US institution whether I wanted to move and I said, ‘no’. And that person said, ‘Oh no, Brian, everyone has their price’. I thought about it for a moment and I told them mine would be $250 million dollars. Their response was, ‘Geez, why so much money?’ and I said, ‘well, let’s see, here at ANU my university has given me $15 million to build SkyMapper. I’ve written a grant to get us involved in the Giant Magellan Telescope for $88 million and I figure I should be doubling up if I’m going to move, so $250 million dollars’. My work has been very well supported here in Australia.”

The $700 million Magellan telescope will be the largest optical telescope ever built and is being constructed by an international consortium, of which ANU is a member, to sit atop the Chilean Andes. When completed in 2018, it will provide images up to 10 times sharper than the Hubble telescope, allowing astronomers to gaze at objects more than 12.5 billion light years from Earth.

He also stays for lifestyle reasons. Schmidt knew what he was getting into with the move to Australia – he had an uncle who had moved to Australia in the early 1970s and he had spent almost five months here in two trips as a child.

“I grew up in Alaska so I had already moved to the other side of the world just to go to Harvard. Honestly, the culture here in Canberra is no further away from Alaska than Boston was from Alaska,” says Schmidt.

His wife, Jenny Gordon, who had gone to Harvard to get her Ph.D. in economics, was a resident advisor in his dorm, charged with making sure the students had a social life instead of working all the time.

While she wasn’t Schmidt’s immediate supervisor, she lived on the floor above him but he never needed anyone reminding him to get his head out of the stars.

“To me work is a balance, I want to be able to do great work, but I also want to decouple from work and I love living in Canberra,” he says. “I love that I can have a winery here right next to where I work. I like the Australian lifestyle and my family is very happy here. So, for me it’s a great place and life is complicated enough. My wife and I both have very good jobs and trying to complicate it at the moment would just be a nightmare. I’ve got no reason to move.”

Australians can thank their lucky (exploding) stars for that.