Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Nobel Week

Brian Schmidt

Image: Belinda Pratten

By Stephen Luntz

Brian Schmidt’s world was turned upside down when he was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for research that has turned our understanding of the universe inside out.

Prof Brian Schmidt has lost count of the number of interviews he conducted in the week after the announcement that he had won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics. The media office at the Australian National University, where Schmidt is professor of astronomy, estimates it at 150. At least 16,000 articles were published worldwide during that time. In addition Schmidt suddenly found himself invited to meet the Prime Minister and give public lectures.

While Schmidt is full of praise for the ANU media office, which took over his diary soon after the prize was announced, they have not been able to lighten his teaching load, which he describes as the largest obstacle to meeting the sudden rush of requests. He is, he says, “still waiting for an opportunity to think”.

Schmidt did manage to squeeze an interview with Australasian Science into his agenda, albeit after the intensity of the first rush had passed. We benefited from Schmidt’s positive memories of an article he wrote for our themed issue on astronomy (AS, Jan/Feb 2009, pp.12–14), which has suddenly become an auspicious edition; Schmidt’s opening feature was followed by an article by Stuart Wyithe (pp.15–18), who won the 2011 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year a few days after Schmidt’s Nobel Prize was announced.

As many of the 16,000 articles have noted, the Nobel Prize came as a surprise to Schmidt, although he says he had a fair idea when a call from a woman with a Swedish accent asked him to stand by for a very important phone call.

The Nobel Prize was awarded for Schmidt’s role in the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Since gravity inevitably acts to pull the universe’s matter together, it had been assumed that the parting of galaxies must be happening at a decreasing rate. The crucial question was considered to be whether gravity would prove strong enough to eventually reverse this expansion, causing everything to collapse again.

Schmidt, along with Prof Adam Reiss of Johns Hopkins University, measured the brightness of Type 1a supernovae, which all produce similar amounts of light. With the intrinsic and observed brightness known it is possible to calculate the stars’ distances. The rate of movement away from us was found using the established technique of measuring the red shift of emission lines in the object’s spectra.

Putting the idea into practice, however, required the discovery of a substantial number of 1a supernovae, which had only been observed rarely. However, Schmidt and Reiss realised that advances in telescope and instrument design made this possible.

“During the course of a night these telescopes can survey more than a million galaxies and find tens of supernovae,” Schmidt wrote in Australasian Science. “Since 1994 astronomers have found more than 500 exploding stars scattered from the present to 11 billion years ago.”

To their astonishment Schmidt and his colleagues found “that the universe has been speeding up for the past six billion years rather than slowing down”. The publication of this finding in 1998 led to the revival of Einstein’s briefly proposed idea of a form of matter called dark energy that repels itself, balancing gravity. Further examination of the data led to the conclusion that the universe is actually 75% dark energy, with the other 25% made up of a combination of the matter we can actually see and the more traditional dark matter.

The Nobel’s science prizes cannot be shared between more than three people, so the other winner of the 2011 Physics Prize is Prof Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led a competing team conducting a similar supernovae search, with each team publishing within a few weeks of the other.

Schmidt is keen for everyone to be aware that the discoveries were very much a team achievement. “There were 18 other people on the team,” he says. “You don’t have to name them all, but I want to get out the idea they were important.”

Schmidt, Reiss and Perlmutter shared the Shaw Prize for Astronomy in 2006 and the Gruber Cosmology Prize in 2007. Nevertheless, prizes other than the Nobels do not make scientists famous. For a day after the announcement, typing “Brian Schmidt” into Wikipedia produced the page of a composer of music for pinball and video games, with a link at the top to the apparently less interesting astrophysicist. This has since been reversed.

Some Nobel Prize winners have been woken by the phone call, and had to confront the media still half-awake. Schmidt had more luck, being called at 8:30 pm and given 10 minutes to make a comment on the official announcement. “The first call came from ABC Lateline, who asked if they could come out and visit me,” Schmidt recalls. In fact, a film crew was already on its way, despite having only a vague idea of where Schmidt lives.

Meanwhile the phone did not stop ringing. Eventually Schmidt called the ANU media office and asked if someone could take over screening his calls. Schmidt adds: “They’d been calling to offer but couldn’t get through”.

Schmidt was up until 1:30 am answering calls before going to bed. His father, a fisheries biologist in Anchorage, Alaska, where Schmidt went to high school, called at 2:30 am. “I didn’t take the call but it woke me up,” Schmidt says. By the time he started his first morning interviews at 6:45 am he’d had 2 hours sleep.

Schmidt also received a supportive call from Prof Barry Marshall, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine, who “gave me his sense of things”. Nevertheless, he certainly felt under pressure. “You’re only one sentence away from disaster with the media the way it is.”

In the course of the following days Schmidt met not only the Prime Minister and Science Minister but also the Finance Minister. Ten days after the announcement he flew to Hawaii for a meeting of the committee that oversees the Gemini Telescopes, on which he serves. Two public talks were added to the schedule, so it was “a more intense trip than usual”.

For some winners the Nobel Prize is a door to research opportunities for which they could never previously get funding, but that is not the case for Schmidt. “I’m in the middle of a huge project for the next 5–7 years. I don’t need anything more. For that period I just want to focus on Skymapper, making a map of the entire southern sky, identifying locations for the really interesting things we want to come back and study in detail with Gemini South and the Anglo-Australian Telescope.”

On the other hand the status of the Prize, and the fact that millions of people now know his name, gives Schmidt a platform. “I think I have a responsibility to try to ensure that Australia and the world understand how science works and why it is important,” Schmidt says. “I don’t want to mix science and policy, but I have been pushing for the Academy of Science to articulate scientific positions on issues of relevance. In the US this is a formalised role for the academies, and I’d love to see that here.”

Schmidt was asked to speak at the awarding of the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, where he sat next to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. “I tried to remind people that Australia has gone from being far away from the rest of the developed world to being on the edge of areas where development is happening. We should be raising expectations of ourselves,” Schmidt says.

“I hope we raise our education expectations commensurate with our wealth so that science can be the engine of prosperity when the commodity boom is over. I want to make people aware of how important science is; how universities and CSIRO make the world a better place.”

His message to those assembled for the PM’s Prizes could not have been missed by Gillard or her advisers. “I often hear it said that science and education policy never won an election. But nations rise and fall on the outcomes of science and education.

“The lack of political acknowledgement of this may be because science and education do not run on a 3-year cycle. It takes decades for such policies to run their course, but they provide a similarly long legacy – 12 years of good education provides a 50-year legacy.”