Professor Brian Schmidt, astronomer

Professor Brian Schmidt

Brian Schmidt was born in 1967 in Montana, USA. In 1989 he received a BSc in physics and a BSc in astronomy from the University of Arizona. He went to Harvard University for graduate work and received a PhD in astronomy in 1993. His thesis research was into Type II supernovae, expanding photospheres and extragalactic distance.

From 1993-94 Schmidt was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 1995 he began work at the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories (MSSSO) as a postdoctoral fellow. He has continued working there, being appointed in 1997 as a research fellow (MSSSO) and in 1999 as a fellow in the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (MSSSO) of the Australian National University. His research interests and current projects include observational cosmology, studies of supernovae, gamma ray bursts and transient object searches.

Interviewed by Ms Marian Heard in 2001.


A family love for science

Brian, you didn't grow up in Australia. Where were you born?

I was born in the western United States, in the State of Montana, in 1967. I lived in a variety of places when I was very young, but I grew up mostly in Montana and, during the second half of my childhood, in the State of Alaska. I was an only child – my parents had me when they were quite young, only 19, and so my Mom, my Dad and I sort of grew up together. I did whatever they did: I went to their parties, and we also had lots of camping and shared life together.

When I was a child my father was doing his PhD in biology and had a love of nature, and that was always something I enjoyed too. I used to go out with him and run around and help him do his research. For example, when he had to collect bugs for his classes, I would stick a big butterfly net out the car window and hold it there while we drove at about 30 kilometres an hour down the ditch. We'd go for about a kilometre, and then we'd stop and get out to look see what we'd have. And there would be amazing things in there, things you'd never know were in the grass. (Occasionally you'd break the net, but that's another story.) We used to do things like that all the time. The love my father had for science was very apparent, and so from the age of two or three I grew to love it the same way.

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Deciding to go into astronomy

What influence did your schooling and your teachers have on you?

I always had pretty good teachers, very supportive of me in wanting to learn, and teaching me very well. When my sixth grade teacher had to teach an astronomy section, she realised that I knew a lot about science and specifically astronomy and so she decided that I would teach the astronomy. At the time I was horrified, but now I realise it was an act of sheer brilliance on her part – I had to learn and prepare so much. I had to follow the curriculum and I took it very, very seriously. (She of course took it very seriously too and made sure I did everything correctly.) That was a great thing for me.

I had good teachers as I moved into my high school years in Alaska, too. They pushed me; I had to really work hard to impress them. They didn't just let me think that doing very well was good enough. It was always, 'How much better can you do?' They were very good that way.

Was your decision to go into astronomy made as early as sixth grade?

Interestingly enough, it was not. By the time I was four or five I was sure I was going to be a scientist. Whenever people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, however, I always said, 'A meteorologist.' They used to laugh, but I was pretty much fixed on that view until the age of 17. Meanwhile I did do a little bit of astronomy, going out to look at comets and the Northern Lights in Alaska, but it wasn't until I did some work at the US National Weather Service that for some reason meteorology no longer rang as the thing I wanted to do.

Then, just before I went off to university, I went to career counselling. I didn't think much of it, but one talk finished with something useful: 'Ultimately you should do what you would do for free. That's the best career.' I was suddenly struck by that, and realised the only thing I would actually do for free was science, and specifically astronomy. And that is what I decided to go into.

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University years: mixed blessings

Why did you choose the University of Arizona to do your degree?

That was in some sense just the easiest thing for me to do at the time. I was quite sure that I wanted to go to a public, state-run university, probably because that was where my parents went and private universities in the United States are so expensive. And they're all on the east coast, whereas I really did want to stay in the west. Also, my grandparents live only about two hours away from the University of Arizona. Fundamentally, though, that university is a very well-known school in astronomy and I went there for its research quality.

University life for me was the most challenging time I've ever had – not academically, but socially. I grew up in Alaska in a very interesting time when oil money had caused huge amounts of money to be spent on education, so the teachers and the schools were top-notch. But at university I found the teachers were not top-notch, actually. My high school experience had been more intellectual than my university experience was, and I had a lot of trouble dealing with that. I felt that rather than going from the little pond to the big pond it was the other way around: I had gone to a much less stimulating environment. So for the first couple of years there I was fairly unhappy and I just wandered through, making sure I did well in classes.

Eventually I found the older graduate students in astronomy, who in your first couple of years you don't get much chance to integrate with, and started hanging out with them. I had a lot more in common with them; they were much more like people I was used to. Once that happened I became quite happy. It was then a time to learn a lot, to have a bit of fun, and to find yourself and what it's like to be on your own.

You actually completed two science degrees during those four years, didn't you?

Well, being unhappy I was willing to work a lot harder on classes than normal people should – harder than I would recommend as a healthy experience. I was taking a lot of classes, seven and sometimes eight a semester, which allowed me to accumulate enough classes to get a degree both in astronomy and also in physics. Would I do it again? Probably not. I would probably try to spend more time being happy, rather than take out my unhappiness in doing all those extra classes. Doing them did not cause me to become a great scientist. It's common sense that allows you to do that. In retrospect, I would have preferred to spend my time doing something like hiking.

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The sky is growing! PhD work

Did you then apply to graduate schools across the United States?

Yes. Unlike in Australia, in the United States you apply for everything. You then figure out where your best deal is and go there. You do not stay where you're at. During my last year at Arizona I was saying that I should stay there for graduate school, but they said, 'We're sorry, we don't allow that. We're not going to even allow you to apply here. You need to go out.' And so I applied to about 13 places in the United States, right through from Hawaii to Harvard. It's very tough to get into graduate school, very competitive, so my expectation was not really to get into many places. But I surprised myself by getting into a lot of places, so then I had decide what to do. Ultimately I went and visited Harvard, Caltech and Santa Cruz – which most people haven't heard of but which has a very strong astronomy department – and Harvard seemed to me like the best place to go. It wasn't where I had intended to go, but I really enjoyed the people there and I enjoyed the atmosphere: it was the only place I visited that actually had winter. Although most people like to avoid winter, I grew up in Alaska–Montana and winter is the core of my life. I liked the fact that it snowed in Boston.

Can you explain the work you did for your PhD at Harvard?

I worked with Robert Kirshner, who is a well-known astronomer there. We were measuring distances by using massive stars – probably 20 times the mass of our sun – which at the end of their lives explode as type II supernovae.

When an object is hot it glows. A light bulb glows because it's been heated up to about 3000 degrees centigrade. Well, a supernova when it explodes is more like 10,000 to 20,000 degrees. And the hotter something is, the brighter it glows and, as it turns out, the more it changes colour. So, for example, when you heat something up a bit, it glows red. But if you heat it up more and more, it becomes progressively white and, eventually, blue. When we looked at one of these exploding stars, its colour told us the temperature, and from that we were able to infer how bright the supernova was, how many watts – how much power – it was putting out. We were able to put all this together with the fact that the further away something is, the fainter it becomes, so that by observing one of these exploding stars we could figure out how far it was away from us.

Then, by measuring not only the distance to these objects but also how fast they are moving apart from us, we measured how fast the universe is expanding now. It turns out every object in the universe is moving away from us, and that brings us to conclude that the universe is expanding as a whole. That is, the further an object is away, the faster it is moving away. Imagine that you put spots on a balloon and you blow up the balloon. As the balloon expands, every spot moves away from every other spot. What we see in the universe is just like that.

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Via marriage to Mount Stromlo

And after completing your PhD?

I finished my PhD in 1993. I had in the meantime gotten married, in 1992, and one of the challenges of modern-day life is finding something for both you and your spouse to do. My wife, Jenny, is an Australian economist who got her PhD at Harvard at the same time I did. When we did the first round of jobs, she got a job in Australia and one in Washington DC, and I got a job in Pasadena and one in Boston. We had made a decision that we were not going to live apart, so we basically cut a deal that I would get a job in Australia within two years, if she would take a job in Boston for the short term. (We had lived in Boston and knew it well, and it had a lot of jobs – not very good jobs, but jobs – that at least we could do in the short term. And so I spent 18 months working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, right next to Harvard, and then I was able to get a job at Canberra.

I arrived at Mount Stromlo at the end of 1994, and I've stayed there. My wife has also worked in Canberra – actually in this building that we're being interviewed in – since the same time. We both have excellent jobs now, so we're loath to change.

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Why is the sky growing so fast?

So what are you currently working on at Mount Stromlo?

A lot of things – probably too many. One of them is a continuation of work which we did in 1998, when we used Type IA supernovae to trace what the universe is doing back into time. These tiny exploding stars end up being even brighter than the massive stars are when they explode, and the interesting thing about these tiny stars is if you've seen one of them, you've more or less seen them all. They're all the same brightness. And so simply by looking at how bright these objects are, we can measure their distance: the fainter they are, the further away they are.

In 1995, just after I arrived in Australia, we started using the biggest telescopes on Earth to discover these objects and figure out how bright they were, and then we would measure how fast each one was moving away from us. In the nearby universe, that allows us to know how fast the universe is expanding. But as we look at greater and greater distances, we're looking not just a long ways away but back into time.

That year, our work in Chile found our first object, Supernova 1995K – not a very exciting name – at 5 billion light-years away. (So it exploded 5 billion years ago, before the Earth was formed.) Finding that first object allowed us to measure how fast the universe was expanding 5 billion years ago, and it indicated to us that the universe was not doing much in the way of slowing down. Yet we expect the universe to slow down, because the universe is full of gravity. Gravity pulls on the universe as it expands, and that should s-l-o-w it down over time. Over the next three years we found a lot more of these objects, which all gave a similar answer to that first one, and that showed that the universe, instead of slowing down like we would have expected, has actually sped up its expansion. It is getting bigger faster and faster. So what we found in 1998 is quite a discovery, and not at all what we expected.

If the universe is speeding up over time, something has to be making it speed up. We had assumed that, basically, gravity was the only thing happening in the universe. This discovery has led us to believe that there is something else, some unknown form of energy which we now call 'dark energy', that is ripping the universe apart. Our 1998 discovery is sufficiently profound and unexpected that we really have to check our work very carefully, so that is one of the things I'm doing right now. Using the Hubble Space Telescope together with the biggest telescopes on Earth we're tracking down as many of these objects as we can and looking at them in fine detail, to make sure something hasn't changed over the last 5 billion years which is throwing us off.

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A big-picture view of the universe

I'm excited about another thing that I'm just starting, for which we're using a very small telescope located up at Siding Spring. (It's owned by the University of New South Wales and has been put together by Michael Ashley.) The interesting thing about this telescope is that it looks at a huge piece of sky at a time, and it actually allows us to get a picture of the entire sky about three times a month. Sure, I could go out with my Nikon and do that as well, but this has a very precise look at the sky: it allows us to see things about a million times fainter than the human eye can see.

We can do a few things with this. The first is to make a catalogue of how bright every object is in the sky, and that's useful for a whole variety of purposes.

The second is to look for moving objects, such as near-Earth objects – objects which come screaming by the Earth. These things are typically 100 metres across or even larger, and one of the things astronomers really want to do is to find out where they all are, because objects which get close to the Earth can eventually crash into it. We can usually predict very accurately where these things are going for centuries into the future, so if we know that in 2200 a large one is going to hit the Earth, it would be nice to be able to put a rocket on it and give it a little tap for a couple of hundred years, and keep it from hitting the Earth.

Thirdly, this allows us to find every nearby exploding star in the universe and measure the distance to hundreds and even thousands of galaxies – I can only do tens or twenties now – and to map out the structure of the universe in a way that we've never been able to do before. So that's something that's quite fun to do locally.

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Projects to explore the long-long-ago

I'm also working on two projects using the 50-inch telescope at Mount Stromlo, the world's first large automated telescope – we just turn it on and it goes. It figures out if it's cloudy or whatever, and it takes the data. In one project it is looking for new planets just outside of Pluto. We think Pluto is not a planet like the other planets are, but was probably formed from material left over after the formation of the other planets in our solar system. If that is correct, then according to the models predicting it, there should be a large number of objects a little bit smaller (or maybe even larger) than Pluto that we just don't know about. We're looking for these planets, but if we find one we will not be discovering 'another' planet; we'll probably be showing that there are only eight planets, not nine.

While that work is happening, occasionally gamma-ray bursts occur. These are the largest explosions in the universe but we don't really know yet what they are. We do know that with the satellite we suddenly detect a burst from the heavens, for a few seconds, of the highest energy bits of light: gamma rays. So once the satellite contacts us, we have the 50-inch telescope up at Mount Stromlo quit what it's doing and change project to go immediately to that location and try to pinpoint what's going on.

These things, we know now, occur not when the universe was 5 billion years old but when it was 10, 11 and even 12 billion years old. So they allow us to look back to the universe when stars were first forming. The idea is to figure out what's going on in the really early parts of the universe.

So that's more or less what I'm working on right now. It keeps me busy.

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Science funding today for outcomes tomorrow

How is your huge range of research funded?

The Australian government has just funded me – only three days ago – through an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant, which people apply for to fund these little bits of research. In addition, the Institute of Advanced Studies, as part of the ANU (the only federal university) gets a sort of grant to pay my salary to help conduct the research. It's been a pretty rough time for the last five years for scientists in Australia. I do believe that things are beginning to turn, and it is my hope that worthy research will be funded. It is very satisfying that this research is beginning to be funded, rather than parts of it having to be paid for by me. It's nice to have a bit of support.

Personally, I think scientists don't need a huge amount of support. But we do need a little bit, because in some sense it is very foolish to pay scientists to do research but not give them any money to do it. That's a waste of money. So it is good to see that Australia is now beginning to give a reasonable level of support to research. It is not yet quite competitive with world standards, but it is heading that way, I hope.

What are your thoughts on the commercialisation of science?

The world has good reason to be so obsessed with commercialisation of science. The quality of life for the world has increased dramatically over the last century, almost entirely due to technology – which is based on science. Science is not the thing that brings the money; it is the first step in taking knowledge and converting it to things that make our life better. Often people get frustrated and say, 'Well, what is your research doing for us today?' The answer is that it's doing something for us tomorrow, not today. And you need to integrate the science we're doing today with things that we can look at and say, 'These are interesting.'

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Putting science to work in a crazy universe

As a good example, 20 years ago my watch would not have existed. If I had worn it 20 years ago I would have been locked up as an alien, because the technology is so advanced it was just beyond comprehension. But the fundamental science that drives this watch was done in the 1920s, when we began to understand quantum mechanics. In those days people would have said, 'This quantum mechanics is just craziness. What good is it going to do for us?' Well, the entire computer revolution is based around quantum mechanics. It took 50 years to take hold, but that is the way science works – you have this huge lead time that builds onto what we can do.

Then you have an intermediate level where people use the quantum mechanics, and use physics or chemistry or biology, to develop things. That's another form of science, applied science. It is also very useful but again there is a five- to 10-year lead time before you get a product on the market.

And then there is the technology, where you convert that applied science into products. I think a lot of people expect scientists to do that, but scientists are not particularly well trained for it. Certainly technological people need to have science backgrounds, but to be effective they need business or other types of knowledge as well. Companies are very good at turning ideas to money, but governments are not – governments are very good at funding the ideas. I think that Australia is beginning to acknowledge that for governments to try to do the whole thing is not a particularly good way to go. Over the last five years, both parties seem to realise that what governments are very good at is supporting long-term science, while industry is very good at turning that science into money.

All of it requires scientists, but trained in different areas. For me to go out and try to convert one of my ideas to something that everyone in the street wants to buy would probably be a disaster. I'm not trained to do that type of stuff. But I hope that my research will eventually be converted, one way or another, into things that will benefit mankind. I hope, too, that people will find it interesting and then be interested themselves in doing science. The universe is a crazy place, and to really understand it you do need a little bit of physics and maths and science background.

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Skills and attitudes for good science

You've touched on this a little bit, but what skills do you need in science today?

Science is not just for geniuses. I would even say that science has evolved to the point where you don't really need geniuses. They were useful before computers, where they had to do things that were just extraordinary. Doing good science is now based largely on having a good set of skills (maths, an understanding of physics or biology) and having imagination, being willing to say, 'Well geez, can I try this?' – something new – being able to put together different things, different bits of knowledge from your life.

But fundamentally you need to have common sense, to ask, 'Is this interesting? Is anyone going to care about this? What should the answer be? What makes sense? How do I go about solving this? How can I work with my friends in the most constructive way to get things done?' Science is not a job where one individual goes and does something great; it's actually a collection of 20 or 30 people, all working together to come to an end. So you're beginning to have to be a manager of people and ideas. People often say, 'Well, you must have been just way out there when you were in high school.' Yes, I was a very good student at high school, but I was not the valedictorian of my school and I certainly strove there not to be considered as someone who only thought about doing science. Successful scientists tend to be fairly normal people who enjoy life and have a wide range of interests. Unlike what people expect, scientists now are pretty normal people!

And the communication of science?

The communication of science is paramount. If you do the best work on Earth and no-one cares, you really haven't done much. Imagine that I made the observation that the universe is accelerating and no-one believed me. Would I actually have done anything? It's not clear to me that I would have. People have claimed in the past that the universe is accelerating, but no-one believed them – probably because their observations were incorrect. If you have a thousand people trying to do something and someone gets the right answer for the wrong reason, that's not considered doing science properly. So you have to be able to communicate what you've done effectively, to convince people what you've done is correct. It's becoming increasingly important to convince your fellow-scientists that what you've done is right, and then to be able to go out and tell people in the community that what you've done is important, and why they should be interested in it. Why should they spend money on telescopes? Such communication is something we're all being trained in more and more. It's becoming very important to our lives.

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Fun and fulfilment from scientific work

What are the rewarding or exciting aspects of working as a scientist?

Scientists are often quick to criticise their lifestyle, but very few of us are willing to leave it – for many reasons. We have ultimate flexibility: if I decide not to go in to work for a day, I can work on Saturday instead. And scientists tend to work more than 40 hours a week, because they love what they do. Also, you get to meet a whole variety of people. One of the striking things in my first year at Harvard, when I first really began to do science, was that my adviser came up to me and said, 'You need to go to this conference in Les Houches, France' – in the middle of the French Alps. I looked at him and said I didn't have enough money to go, but he said, 'Oh no, no, I'll pay. You'll go there and you'll learn and you'll do stuff.' Science is so international, you have to travel. The internet is not perfect. You cannot spend six weeks in conferences with people via the phone; it does not work. You have to travel if you're going to communicate ideas. And so as a scientist you get to travel. I remember in 1990 being overwhelmed at being able to do that. It was quite an opportunity. Now I travel so much that it's almost a negative thing, but if you enjoy travelling, science is probably a good thing for you.

I also think that science gives you a chance to do something which people are interested in. (Not everyone is interested in astronomy, but a lot of people are.) To be a successful scientist you need to be able to explain to people what you're doing so that they also appreciate it. I think that scientists are increasingly doing something which people care about. And it's important to what our nation is doing as a whole, so it's very fulfilling in that way. It has a lot of rewards.

And it can be fun. I believe you had a brief Race Around the World touch with fame.

It came from trying to communicate with people about what we're doing. A couple of years ago I was going off to Chile, where the weather is very, very clear, to find supernovae. Quantum – an ABC program that no longer exists, unfortunately – wanted some film about the accelerating universe and I said, 'Well, you're not filming Race Around the World right now. Why don't you give me one of the program's cameras, and I'll go film myself.' So they handed me a Race Around the World digital video recorder and I got my chance to film our team in action, finding supernovae. That ended up being used on Quantum, and at the end of the program they actually labelled me as the cameraman. So you do get the chance for some fun things like that.

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The stimulus of awards and recognition

You've won an impressive number of awards during your career, both overseas and here in Australia. How important have these been for you?

The awards are certainly very satisfying. My first was a scholarship at the University of Arizona. I had never received an award or anything of any significance throughout high school, and I didn't even get a scholarship when I went off to university. But while I was at home for the summer in Kodiak, Alaska, I got a letter from the University of Arizona and opened it up in the car on my way to work. It said, 'You have just won this scholarship.' That was the first thing I'd ever won, and I started crying because I was so happy. (I think it's the only time I've ever cried.)

And then as you win other awards you always feel very good about them. Sometimes they strike a special chord. Last year I was lucky enough to win the first Malcolm McIntosh Prize – an award which the government has put in place to honour this great scientist and leader of science in Australia, who died from kidney failure a couple of years ago. Until I got to the award ceremony it was another award and I was feeling very happy. When I got there, I met his family and then I was stuck up on the front of the stage. I'm used to just being able to talk, but suddenly I froze. I was just blown over by the situation, quite overawed by that award.

Awards are very important to scientists, to push us along, to say what we're doing is respected and liked by the community. Sometimes an award can just push you in a direction that you didn't think you would be able to go, and the significance of that particular award pushed me towards trying to help influence the way science is done in Australia, and to do all I personally can to excite Australians about what science can do for Australia and why they should be loving science.

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Lifestyle interests and opportunities

Your research is clearly a very important part of your life, but you have a wide range of other interests as well.

I've got a family – two kids who are four and seven now, Kieran and Adrian, and my wife – and I love to spend time with my family and enjoy life together. Being in Canberra, the Bush Capital, presents you with certain opportunities. I live on an almost 90-acre farm just 15 minutes from the centre of town, which costs less than a flat does in Sydney. I've put a vineyard in and I'm going to start making wine, hopefully this year. That's a good occupation. I love to work on that before I go in to work in the morning.

I love to cook. Cakes, anything, I love to do. Last night I made a confit of duck: my freezer broke, I had a duck to get rid of, and so I cooked it up. (For the sake of the vegetarians, I won't even tell you what a confit of duck is!)

I've also been known in my early days to do a lot of running, and I used to play French horn. In a busy life, some things go. I wish running hadn't gone and I will eventually try to run again. I loved the French horn and I actually toured Australia in 1985, my last year of high school, playing in Canberra, Albury-Wodonga, Melbourne, Sydney and all these places. But it takes a lot of time, and unfortunately I just don't have time any more to concentrate on doing that. I'm always looking for new things to do, though.

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Hoping that great things will be done

Where do you see yourself in 10 years' time?

Ten years is such a long time. I hope and I fully expect I'll still be actively working on science, doing stuff which is unlocking the fundamental mysteries of our universe. Scientists often get corralled into doing administration – running young scientists – and that's where I hope I do not go. I hope still to be able to go and talk to Australians about what's going on in science. Certainly I hope I'll be able to look back and say that in about 2000 Australia turned the corner and never looked back; it has become a great nation on the science front. If we do that, and we continue on where we're going, in 2010 I will be able to point to all the things that have happened to Australia – this great thing, this great thing, this great thing – since people started supporting science. That's what I expect to do if we continue heading as we are starting to go now, really supporting science.

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