Space invaders

29 Nov 2011

Author: Toni Jordan

Photography: Gary Heery

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A passion for astronomy, and Australia, has led Bryan Gaensler to his role as director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics.
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Although not yet 40, Bryan Gaensler has been passionate about space for a long time. “I’ve wanted to be an astronomer since I was about three,” says Gaensler, a Professor of Physics at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy, within the University of Sydney. “Like all young boys, I didn’t like to be bored. When I stumbled across this thing called astronomy – well, it seemed to have no end. It was the ultimate in endless fascination.” 

His boyhood preoccupation has paid off. Gaensler is a former Young Australian of the Year (1999) and took out the 2011 Pawsey Medal for outstanding Australian research in physics by a scientist under 40. Astronomy seems an unusual career, though, for someone from Sydney’s northern beaches. “The late ’70s was the peak of the cultural cringe in Australia,” Gaensler says. “Lots of people told me that astronomy would make a good hobby, rather than a career. I did think about it. I did work experience in a law firm.”

However, the law couldn’t compete with the wonders of space. Gaensler completed a Bachelor of Science in 1995, followed by a doctorate in astrophysics. His research revealed that supernova remnants aligned with the magnetic field of the Milky Way like “cosmic compasses”. In the late 1990s, Gaensler moved to the US where he held jobs at MIT, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and then in 2002, Harvard University where he was an associate professor. “I was settling in for the long haul,” Gaensler says. “Then exciting things started to happen back in Australia.”

Part of that excitement included the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), where Gaensler is now director. “The history of astronomy over the last 400 years has been looking at smaller and smaller parts of the sky in more detail,” Gaensler explains. “We’re pioneering a new approach.” Gaensler and his team are positioning Australia as the leader in All-Sky Astrophysics, where thousands of square degrees of sky are analysed to answer important questions in astronomy, including when galaxies first formed and the nature of the high-energy physics that drives change in the universe.

Gaensler believes that it’s the broad base of support that makes Australia such an attractive place for astronomy research. “We have more money and better telescopes than many other countries,” he says. “The research is being done by the universities, by government agencies and by the CSIRO, but we also have very fruitful collaborations with industry.” One of the more unexpected collaborations is with computer game companies working to develop next-generation superfast graphic processor units: ideal for the enormous number of telescope data calculations Gaensler’s team requires.

The future of astronomy in Australia looks bright. In 2009, the Australian government announced Space and Astronomy as one of three “super sciences” – priority areas for research – that will receive a total of $AUD1.1 billion in funding. And next year Australia will find out if it has been chosen as the location of the ultimate all-sky telescope, the Square Kilometre Array: a radio telescope 100 times more powerful than any other instrument. The international science community has shortlisted a joint Australia/New Zealand bid and an African consortium for the project.

By then, Bryan Gaensler’s fascination with astronomy might have entered a new phase. “My ultimate goal is to understand why the universe is magnetic,” he says.