Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

About Schmidt

Credit: Juliet Taylor

Credit: Juliet Taylor

By Jay Furby

Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt discusses global warming, exploding stars, politics and Star Wars.

“The first thing I did when I won the Nobel Prize was to sit my wife down. I told her I was sorry. I knew everything was about to change.”

It’s not every day you meet a Nobel Prize winner, and while Brian P. Schmidt appears, at first glance, no different than the average guy you’d bump into at a bus stop, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Schmidt is 48. Born in Montana, he married an Australian and emigrated here in 1994. Described by some as a militant agnostic, his tagline of “I don’t know and neither do you” often raises a smile. He believes in global warming, and has even placed a $10,000 bet on temperatures rising with the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Council.

We meet in the ruins of Mount Stromlo observatory, which was burnt to the ground by bushfire in 2003. As his voice echoes off the walls, I quickly determine that behind his disarming charm and piercing blue eyes, a brain pulsates as powerful as the supernovae he’s studied.

“You see, I’m just an ordinary guy,” he continues with a wry smile, casually leaning up against the stone ledge in front of me. “Even my old teacher’s reaction to my win was like, ‘You?’ It’s a bit surprising, really. I just worked hard and was enthusiastic.”

I nodded but I didn’t buy it for a second, for Schmidt seemed to glow, like the anointed ones do, and I was well aware that, as one of only 15 Australian Nobel Laureates, he could leave me in his intellectual wake at any moment of his choosing. In truth, I barely understood the title of his 2011 Nobel Prize-winning citation: “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae”.

Thankfully I wasn’t there to ask about things I would never understand. I was there to pose “layman” questions, seeking simple answers to complicated matters. I began naively: “Knowing what you do about space, when you get to the edge of space...”

“There is no edge of space,” he interjects. “It either keeps going and going, or wraps onto itself like the Earth. If you think of space, the edge of space is time and the universe is expanding. It’s 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and each second we are moving to a new edge.”

“I see,” I answer but I’m lying, drowning in a sea of conceptual infinities so I move on to the next pub question. “Do you think life exists elsewhere in space?”

“I have every reason to believe that we’re going to be able to look at planets in the next 10–20 years and start asking: ‘Is there life out there?’ But I will say we haven’t gotten anything that we don’t understand at this point.

“I’d like there to be something but what we do with that information when we find it is a completely different question. Because you have to ask yourself: ‘Would you like to be us?’ And the answer would be: ‘I wouldn’t trust us’.

“I mean, ask the Aboriginals in Australia. It wasn’t a good thing for them. With every single meeting in the history of humanity on this planet there’s been a winner and a loser, and I’m not particularly wanting to take a 50/50 chance with something out there.”

“Why do you think that humans are always looking, then?”

“It’s much easier to explore and find uncharted territories that haven’t been raped and pillaged by our previous activities. It’s probably genetic, a survival thing. It’s not just us. Animals do it as well. Think of us as a herd going through life eating kangaroos. There are lots of them, so you’re able to have many children and you end up in a large group of people. Eventually all the kangaroos are gone.

“So, you have a choice. You can develop a big way of becoming sustainable or just move onto the next place. Humans have always found it easier to move on.

“The challenge we have is that Earth is less than 13,000 km across. It seems really big but we have more than seven billion people. It’s soon to be eight, nine. The space between each person will become pretty small. There’s no real place to belong.

“So we have to find another planet, and Mars isn’t really hospitable. Or we learn to live in our current patch of the universe.

“I don’t think we have a choice. We have to live on Earth, and for the next 100 years that’s the big challenge for humanity: figuring out how to live, all of us, on Earth in a sustainable way.”

As he answered, I wondered why the leaders of the world don’t follow the knowledge that is so simply explained by our finest minds. So I ask him exactly that. This time he takes a breath before he speaks.

“That’s an interesting question,” he muses. “They do listen to me. The question is why they don’t act. Some of my colleagues truly do not believe in the effects of global warming. It’s very complicated. You can suggest things to people that are not true. That’s why you don’t want to rely on just one brain.

“The problem, of course, is that science is never black and white. There are a lot of people who believe I should not have won the Nobel Prize, and that what I’ve done is rubbish.

“So how do you deal with the fact that scientists are human, and that there are going to be distorted views? In the end I believe you have to take a consensus approach. Other people disagree. Well, I’m prepared to say: ‘Give me an alternative’. Because when you’re trying to set policy you need to say: ‘Here’s the facts and here’s the uncertainty’. The consensus tries to give you the facts. Occasionally its wrong, but it’s very rare.

“If you’d actually put a gun to the head of a consensus in 1995 about the universe accelerating, they would’ve actually said: ‘We don’t know’. Now, if you point a gun at the consensus about global warming or climate change, the answer is: “We’re 99% sure about what’s happening, and it’s related to CO2 coming into the atmosphere. We’re even more certain that what’s going to happen in the future will be even worse than what’s happening at present.

“You see, there’s a really interesting selection effect. Lots of people predict things in the future, and the ones who we revere are the ones who got the answer right, probably out of dumb luck. The future is really hard.”

Schmidt has recently been appointed Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University. “Would you consider a career in politics?” I asked. He took his time to answer.

“No,” he finally replied. “There have been a few Nobel Prize-winning politicians who haven’t been very good. I’ve seen politicians and political processes up close. I’d like to interact with them but I’m someone who wouldn’t survive a week. I absolutely speak my mind. I’m very pragmatic. Ultimately I have fundamental boundaries of what I believe is right and wrong, and I’m unprepared to make the sacrifices to my own values as required by politics.”

He pauses.

“I’m not saying that politicians should be like me. They’ve always been a certain group of people, and we force it on them to make compromises that are necessary to move forward between intransient positions.

“My way of working works with people who are rational and not intransient. So I stick to what I do, and when I meet someone who doesn’t work within my framework I end up just going around ignoring them.

“The best thing for people like me is to try to make sure that the best possible set of outcomes happens amongst the political class. I’ve gone into various political offices and said, ‘Your policy on this front is flawed for the following reason,’ and they say: ‘I can trust you to keep a secret. You’re right: it is flawed, but we’ve made an announcement and we’re sticking with it until the next election.” And you know, they’re the people who win.

“So, I know where I’m meant to be in life. I’m in very good relations with politicians, and even the ones I disagree with I always respect. Sometimes it’s hard to but I do.

“I like to have constructive conversations to ensure they have at least heard a counterpoint view from someone who is not screaming at them and making them emotional. I say, ‘No, this is the consequence of your view. You need to understand that concept.’ And you know, sometimes I try to make them acknowledge it. Sometimes they reply, ‘Yes, I understand that consequence,’ or ‘I don’t care; it would be against my values.’

“The only ones I disrespect are the ones who are evil. I mean, there are a few of those, but generally evil people don’t seem to get elected. So the ones whom some people think are evil are often those who simply have a very different political point of view.”

We take a darker turn, not because the professor wants to but I steer it that way. I need answers to the questions I promised my friends in the pub I would ask.

“What is the greatest threat to the Earth from space?”

When he hears the question, Schmidt becomes chirpy, effervescent and even bouncy. “A really, really big asteroid would create mayhem but the big risk, which is inevitable, is that every year the nuclear reactor in the Sun gets a tiny, tiny bit stronger. This is not what causes climate change but it’s going to cause climatic change in the future. So, 500 million years from now the Sun is going to be a lot, lot hotter and Earth will not be habitable. It’s actually a progression. Then there are events when the Sun will get so big it’ll burn up the Earth and we’re gone. That’s several billion years away.

“It’s pretty much inevitable, unless we create technology that puts a big shield around the Earth progressively blocking out more and more sunlight over time. That’ll give us another billion years, probably. But at some point it probably won’t be enough.”

“How do you sleep at night?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he answers softly. “You just come to terms with it. That’s why I go and look at the sky and think about it.”

“Is there anything that could threaten us sooner?”

Schmidt’s lips curl inwards. “A giant comet could be on its way right now and we would be looking at it and be like, “Oh crap! It’s very close to the Earth.” The problem with comets is they shoot stuff out – that’s why they’re comets. Their tails are almost like a little rocket, so you’re never quite sure where they’re going to go. If one came in very fast, from way out there, it’d be almost impossible to get a rocket to it and do anything meaningful. You might get enough nuclear power onto it [but] you probably wouldn’t have enough time, and if that thing hit directly it would be another ‘dinosaur event’. It wouldn’t wipe out the planet, but it would probably wipe out humanity.”

“Would you tell people it’s coming?”

“Absolutely,” Schmidt replies. “They’d figure it out soon enough. Do you think I’m going to keep it a secret? My guess is with modern technology you’d probably have at least a year’s notice.”

“That’s nice to know.”

“I should say,” Schmidt adds, “that the chance of this happening is extraordinarily unlikely. When I say extraordinarily, I mean the chance is about the same as being hit by lightning in a clear sky. But if it were to happen, the worst possible case would be a direct hit, coming in as a normal comet, getting caught by Jupiter and then going into an orbit with a much higher chance of crossing the Earth. Then we might have 20, 30, 100 or 1000 years notice. If we have 100 years notice we could probably solve those problems. Most threats we could mediate, but not all.”

“What’s the nightmare scenario?”

“Almost all of them are to do with humans. But as far as astrophysics goes, you have a very unlikely situation of a gamma ray pointing at us that would ionise our atmosphere, probably killing off half the planet. Boom! You’ll have no notice when that happens but the odds are about one in a billion. It’s very unlikely.”

I fix his gaze and plump for an “out of the box” question. “What do you think about the idea that we may have more in common with aliens then is commonly believed?”

“There’s no evidence. The reason I say you shouldn’t believe in us being evolved from aliens is down to DNA. Look at ours and compare it to apes. There’s so much in common. It’s a tiny change between an ape and us. So consequently there’s not much else to believe. The changes just happened over time.”

“Who do you see yourself as having most in common with: Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk?”

It’s funny; the most flippant question garners the most serious expression before Schmidt replies.

“I’m definitely not Darth Vader. Darth Vader went through a bad patch, and I wouldn’t want to have that on my conscience. I was always a Mr Spock-type of guy but I’ll pick Luke Skywalker. Well, he’s not really like me but he always tried hard. He failed a couple of times but he’s an ordinary guy and that’s why I like Luke. He’s kind of an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things.

“That’s the same as most Nobel Prize winners – ordinary people doing extraordinary things. My high school teacher was like, ‘You were good, but you were no better than anyone else!’ And the answer is, he was right. I wasn’t. What did I do? I continued to work, I learnt and I was in the right place in space and time to be part of something great.

“Almost everything humankind has achieved isn’t a result of super people like Einstein. He probably was really super, but there are very, very few people like him.

“You can work alone but I’ve always said it’s better to work in teams and have 100 people there. When something bad happens you have 99 people to pick you up. If it’s all “me versus you,” you have 99 people to crush you when you’re down because they hate your guts. Humans work amazingly well together, and that’s how I think Luke Skywalker led, by being a normal person.”

I sit back and look up at the sky. I for one would follow this man against the Dark Side or even, if he decides, to the polling booth.

He certainly isn’t a normal person. He’s a damn fine one.

Jay Furby is a freelance writer.