A Nobel endeavour

1 December 2011

"I wanted to do a big experiment. I always think that you want to do experiments you can explain to your kids or your grandmother."

The call came in at 8.30pm. On the other end of the line was a woman with "an impeccable Swedish accent". She asked if the man she was speaking to was Brian Schmidt.

Professor Brian Schmidt, astronomer, physicist and vigneron, told her that, yes, it was he.

"Are you sure?" said the woman.

"This is a very important phone call from Sweden."

In that instant, Schmidt realised just how important.

Within a few moments the academic from the University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics was talking to the entire Nobel Prize Committee. They told him that he had won the Nobel Prize for Physics, and asked him to face the world's media by phone at the announcement, which was just minutes away.

Schmidt, part of a team that completely changed our understanding of the universe, is characteristically good humoured about the moment his own life completely changed.

"They call you up just before the award ceremony," he says. "The whole prize committee congratulated me, asked me how my wine vintage was going and whether in seven or eight minutes I would be able to go live with the press conference and tell the world my reaction.

"It was quite exciting, that's for sure."

It was also an amazing achievement. At just 44, Schmidt becomes one of only 12 Australians to take one of the coveted prizes, and the sixth from ANU. That he is still - by academic standards - a young man, with a lengthy career ahead of him, makes the award all the more remarkable.

So where did this star of the stellar systems begin his journey? It turns out that in Missoula, Montana, where he was born and raised, the Schmidt family put science in his veins.

"I grew up in a family that had a lot of science. My father was a biologist, so science was just something I grew up with. I remember him starting and finishing his PhD - I was six at the time. My mum had a job, so I'd go out into the field with my dad and help him with his science experiments. Science was always something I found enjoyable," he says.

Although astronomy was "never an obsession", his parents had the smarts to recognise his interest in the stars,  buying him an inexpensive telescope so he could see the moons of Jupiter, and a subscription to an astronomy magazine.

While no academic slouch, Schmidt says that he wasn't the stereotypical high school boy genius. Instead, he performed well and got his astronomy fix from a limited exposure in the physics curriculum.  His enjoyment of astronomy not withstanding, he never saw it as a future job.

"I didn't mind going out and trying it,  but I was pragmatic and figured that even if I studied astronomy, I probably wouldn't have that good a chance to do it as a career," he says.

Despite his career reservations, he was able to use his undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson to focus on his passion, although even then he hedged his bets on whether there was a future for him in astronomy.

"I wasn't very happy at University - I just struggled a bit with the situation. So I spent a lot of time doing classes and ended up doing two degrees at the same time - physics and astronomy."

That dedication paved the way for Schmidt to get into Harvard University where he did his PhD. His thesis at the Ivy League institution looked at Type II Supernovae systems, marking the start of a career looking at the exploding stars.

In 1994, a year after completing his PhD, a fresh-faced Schmidt arrived at ANU. He was lured, he says, by the chance to be involved in research that would be memorable.

"I wanted to do a big experiment. I always think that you want to do experiments you can explain to your kids or your grandmother," he says.

"My desire was to go out and measure the ultimate fate of the universe. It seemed like a pretty big question."

Working with Dr Adam Reiss of John Hopkins University, Schmidt led a team of 20 looking at that big question. The team aimed to use light from a supernova so distant that it had taken billions of years to reach us, to work out how much the universe was slowing down over time.

The results, however, were not what they expected.

"When we got our results in 1998 we found the universe wasn't slowing down at all, in fact it was speeding up.

"When we first saw the results, I have to admit that I thought we had made a mistake. It just didn't make sense. It seemed too crazy to have 75 per cent of the universe be missing and be a certain type of matter that pushes on itself.

"It turns out that's all allowed by general relativity, and Einstein even invented this stuff, but it's certainly a pretty big leap to go and tell the world, 'oh hey everyone, we've missed 75 per cent of the universe, the universe is speeding up and gravity is working in reverse'.

"I was very reluctant to tell everyone, but I knew we had to. That's the way science works. You don't want to prejudge the universe; the universe does what it does, our job is to measure it."

But Schmidt's trepidation was unfounded. His team's research - and that of joint Nobel Prize winner Professor Saul Perlmutter - met a largely receptive audience, and in turn helped solve a few cosmic conundrums.

"I was surprised because there seemed quite reasonable acceptance, quite quickly," he says. "Part of that was because the announcement was made by two teams who were working fairly combatively with each other. The other thing is there were some problems in cosmology, and this stuff we found fixed most of the outstanding problems, so it was sort of like people said 'okay, this may be right - it's not obviously wrong'."

While his discovery changed not only the world, but the universe, Schmidt got quietly on with the astronomical research he loves.  As his career developed at Mount Stromlo, he built a life for himself at Canberra, a place he says he has "no intention of leaving", and established a vineyard just outside Canberra where he makes pinot noir - a notoriously temperamental drop, and one befitting someone who is able to understand the complexities of astrophysics.

Like so many Canberrans, Schmidt was deeply affected by the bushfires of 2003. But the flames that engulfed Mount Stromlo did more than just destroy his office; they also fundamentally affected his research. Schmidt was just about to start a project using Stromlo's 50-inch telescope to map the southern skies. But that telescope, like four others at Stromlo, was destroyed.

But, out of the disaster came rebirth - in the form of the SkyMapper telescope, the project that has occupied Schmidt for the last few years.

Located at the University's Siding Spring Observatory, in the New South Wales countryside, SkyMapper is a state of the art instrument that will allow for the first ever complete map of the southern skies.

"[SkyMapper] has the ability to take a picture of the sky 40 times bigger than the full moon, 10 million times fainter than the human eye can see," he says.

"Over the next five years a team from Stromlo and I will be mapping the entire southern sky 36 times in six different colours, to make a sort of treasure map of the sky.

"With that we can train big telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope, or the Hubble Space telescope, to study things like the outer solar system, or other planets like Pluto, or to find the most distant object in the universe like giant black holes that were formed after the big bang."

The University's investment in both SkyMapper and the Giant Magellan Telescope to be constructed in Chile - another project Schmidt is heavily involved in - continue a long history of Australian support for astronomy. It was, says Schmidt, part of the reason he was drawn to the country in the first place.

"Around the world in astronomical circles Australia's reputation is well-known," he says.

"One of the reasons why I came here is because ANU and Mount Stromlo has a great reputation that goes back 50 years. Australia has invested heavily in astronomical instrumentation since about 1940, and that has enabled a critical mass of people to get together in this country and do a whole range of discovery over the last 50 years."

Those discoveries, and the life of discovery that comes with a career in academia, are things that Schmidt is keen to share and encourage in others. Winning the Nobel Prize, he says, means that he now has a welcome obligation to science and the public.

"It changes my responsibility to the scientific community in Australia. I have, I think, a real responsibility to ensure that Australia does wise things in science and technology in the future.

"I guess I should also be explaining to people that it's not hard to win a Nobel Prize because, look, even I can do it!

"People like me in science have great careers here in Australia; it's a very good thing to do with one's life. I have no regrets, and I'm kind of a normal person by most people's count. I really want to get it through to Australians, and especially young Australians, that science is fun, a great job, and you never know where it's going to lead to."

And like the accelerating universe his research heralded, the science of astronomy itself is at the dawn of an exciting and rapidly unfolding future.

"I've been lucky to be born at the right time," he says. "There has been about 10 years where the technology has really allowed discovery to blossom. I see that happening for the next 20 or 30 years, at least, so I think it's a very special time for astronomy."

And that's something we can all raise a glass of pinot to.

Professor Brian Schmidt AC is Distinguished Professor and astrophysicist at the ANU Mount Stromlo Observatory. He is the incoming ANU Vice-Chancellor.

This article was first published in the ANU Reporter in the Summer 2011 edition.