Brian Schmidt: Neliti Face of Science 008

Neliti’s 9th Face of Science is the “Duke of Dark Energy” – a man whose pursuit of new knowledge led to the discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. His groundbreaking finding showed that 70% of the universe is made up of something we previously didn't know existed: “Dark Energy.”

Neliti’s 9th Face of Science is the “Duke of Dark Energy” – a man whose pursuit of new knowledge led to the discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. His groundbreaking finding showed that 70% of the universe is made up of something we previously didn’t know existed: “Dark Energy.”

Rendition of Brian Schmidt by Fabio Paiva (fpaiva.com)

If the child is the father of the man, as William Wordsworth observed, then a brilliant scientist such as Brian Schmidt can find absolute relevance in those profound words.

“I always wanted to be a scientist like my father, the only scientist I knew.” Brian fulfilled his childhood dream by becoming a scientist, and won a ¼ share of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011, for the discovery of “the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.”

This achievement was possible because the seeds of his future were planted in childhood and were consistently nurtured.

Rendition of Brian Schmidt by 3D artist Fabio Paiva (fpaiva.com)

Birth and early years

Dana and Donna Schmidt were two 19-year-old students at the University of Montana, in Missoula, Montana, when they became parents to a baby boy, Brian, on 24 February 1967. Brian, an only child, grew up with his teenage parents, learning about life alongside them. They didn’t lead a stable life at the time and could not afford childcare. As a result, Brian accompanied them everywhere, sharing in every part of their lives, at home, at parties, at social gatherings, and during holidays. He recalls “lots of camping,” and a love of nature was firmly embedded in his psyche.

As a child, he watched his father, a fisheries biologist, going through a demanding schedule to earn his PhD in Biology. He recalls running around to assist his father with his research. Dana had to collect bugs for his studies, so Brian would hold a butterfly net through the open car window, clinging tight against the force of the wind as they drove about 30 kilometres an hour down the road. After travelling about a kilometre, they would stop the car to see what they had caught. Brian witnessed the most incredible things caught in the net, objects he never thought could be found in the grass.

In all of this, Brian could see his father’s love for science, and from the age of two or three, a similar love took root in his own heart.

School life

During his early years, Brian travelled extensively with his parents. Then, in 1973, when his father finished his PhD in Oregon, the family returned to Montana, where Brian attended primary and middle schools in the area.

Later in life, he spoke enthusiastically about his days in the public school system in Alaska and Montana, applauding the benefits of education in a diverse socio-economic environment. He said, “I went to school on the edge of a military base and 50 per cent of my peers came from very low socio-economic backgrounds, and the other 50 per cent came from people like my father, very wealthy people. That mix was a great thing that I would never, ever get rid of. I am so lucky that I had a school system that spent about $25,000 per student on public schools.”

High school days

When Brian was 13 years old, his family relocated to Anchorage, Alaska, and he was enrolled in Bartlett High School in Anchorage.

Brian spoke highly of his teachers at Bartlett, who encouraged him to strive for excellence. “I had to really work hard to impress them,” he said. He also came to understand that the Bartlett teachers did not consider “doing very well” to be “good enough.” Their response was, “How much better can you do?”

Brian is remembered by his teachers as an outstanding student. His physics teacher, Mike McVee, described him as “one of the best students in class,” adding, “He was extremely talented, a hard-working student, an all-around student-athlete. I always thought he would do well no matter who he had teaching him.”

“He was a great kid,” said Wayne Mergler, who had Brian in an advanced placement English class. “Delightful, charming, funny, smart. He was never quiet.” Mergler gave Brian a lead role in the school’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.”

Brian devoted his time to several extracurricular activities, including membership in the running team, the Honour Society, and the cross-country ski team. He played the horn in the symphonic band and was in student government as the treasurer of the sophomore class of 1982.

Brian’s geometry teacher and cross-country ski coach, Peter Tryon, said, “He was a really nice kid and worked very hard.” He remembers Brian as a “solid, good skier, but not on the A team.”

Brian graduated from high school in 1985.

Getting to know meteorology

While in Anchorage, Brian had the opportunity to work at the USA National Weather Service. Working as a meteorologist had been a childhood dream for him since he was five years old. But as it often is, anticipation proved better than realisation. He understood that he had been viewing the position through rose-tinted glasses. He said, “[I] didn’t enjoy it very much. It was less scientific, not as exciting as I thought it would be — there was a lot of routine. But I guess I was just a little naive about what being a meteorologist meant.”

Then, at the threshold of being admitted to university, he decided to seriously study his “minor pastime” of astronomy. He found comets intriguing and was fascinated by the Alaskan Northern Lights. However, he was not fully committed to astronomy even then. As he expressed, “I’ll do astronomy and change into something else later.” But the change to something else never happened.

Meanwhile, he had to choose his focus for his university education. Unsure which direction he wanted to take, he attended a few sessions of career counselling. One piece of advice that stuck in his mind was the closing of a talk which said, “Ultimately you should do what you would do for free. That’s the best career.”

This statement stopped Brian in his tracks, and he realised that the only thing he would actually do for free was science, and specifically, astronomy. So, he chose astronomy.

Studying astronomy at the University of Arizona

In 1985, Brian left Alaska to study Astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Apart from the fact that the University of Arizona was renowned for quality research, Brian’s grandparents lived about two hours away. Furthermore, private universities were mostly on the East Coast, whereas Brian preferred to be on the West Coast.

Thus, Brian’s career in astronomy started in 1985 upon arriving at the University of Arizona as an enthusiastic, wide-eyed young freshman focused on studying physics and astronomy. Despite his keenness, he felt daunted by the Astronomy majors in his first astronomy class. He stared in awe as many of them appeared to have encyclopaedic knowledge of everything from white dwarf stars to quasars. Although Brian understood physics, he knew nothing of the things they talked about. He realised it was going to be a steep learning curve.

As a first step to expanding his knowledge base, Brian chose the Steward Observatory where he began working for Professor John McGraw on his Charged Coupled Devices (CCD) Transit Instrument (CTI). This instrument was 15 years ahead of its time and had the honour of creating the first large digital maps of the sky.

Despite this, he found the teachers at the university were not up to par, and intellectually, he felt let down. This was partly because he had top-notch high school teachers in Alaska. As he said, “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.” Therefore, during the first few semesters, Brian merely moved from lesson to lesson and threw himself into his studies to do well.

Unhappy at the university, he decided to use his time to do two science degrees — one in Astronomy and the other in Physics. He took about eight classes a semester, and in retrospect, he feels that spending all that time studying for two degrees was a waste of time, as they did not make him a great scientist. As he remarked, “Common sense makes you a great scientist.” Looking back now, he feels his time would have been better spent doing a fun activity like hiking.

Meanwhile, as he became familiar with his surroundings, he found older graduate students in Astronomy who were more the kind of people he was comfortable with. He started hanging out, having fun, and reflecting on who he really was.

The time for university applications

Brian sent applications to about 13 universities in the U.S. — from Hawaii to Harvard. He was aware it was a battle to get into graduate school, as the process was competitive. And although he didn’t expect offers from many places, Brian suddenly became very much in demand.

In the end, he chose to visit Harvard, Caltech, and Santa Cruz universities, primarily because they all had strong astronomy departments. Although not his first choice, Harvard appeared to be the best choice.

Despite Brian getting accepted by several good graduate schools, it was only when Harvard University’s Professor Robert Kirshner visited Tucson that Brian decided exactly where he would go. As he liked the focus of Professor Kirshner’s research, he approached Kirshner and told him he would enrol at Harvard if they could work together.

After a satisfying visit to Harvard, Brian realised he liked the people there, its atmosphere, and the prospect of snow in the winter in Boston. He said, “I grew up in Alaska–Montana and winter is the core of my life. I liked the fact that it snowed in Boston.”

Onto Harvard

Travelling to Boston city in 1989, Brian felt an instant connection with the quaint, intellectual environment and was thrilled the moment he set foot at Harvard.

As he began his work for his PhD, he focused on measuring distances by using massive stars which were about 20 times the mass of the sun and which, at the end of their lifespan, would explode as Type II supernovae. Brian decided to focus on studying supernovae rather than discovering them.

He worked with Ron Eastman, a final year student of Kirshner’s, who was building theoretical models. Brian agreed to make maximum use of Eastman’s theories by focusing on observations and harmonising them with the theoretical models.

Moreover, he was fortunate in that, while studying for his PhD, he was exposed to emerging work directed at measuring distances to Type1a Supernovae. Even more, he was able to meet international experts on these objects and build good rapport, thus laying the foundation for the subsequent forming of the High-Z SN Search Team.

Brian submitted his thesis in August 1993 and remained at the Center for Astrophysics as a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow. He felt privileged with the benefit of a fellowship where he could do anything he wanted, along with the opportunity of being part of Robert Kirshner’s group of experts.

Beyond Harvard to Australia

In 1994, a year after receiving his PhD from Harvard University, Brian migrated to Australia to work at the Australian National University’s (ANU) Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra. He was joined by his wife, Jennifer, whom he met at Harvard.

Professor Brian Schmidt spent most of his academic career as an astrophysicist at the ANU Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics before becoming the 12th Vice-Chancellor at ANU.

At ANU, Brian led a team of scientists from around the world, utilising telescopes to observe exploding stars, known as supernovae, to trace cosmic expansion back in time.

In 1998, under Brian’s leadership, the High-Z Supernova Search team made the startling discovery that the expansion rate of the Universe has been accelerating over the past eight billion years, a discovery that indicates that 70% of the Universe is composed of ‘dark energy.’

Background to the theory of the expanding universe – excerpts from Brian Schmidt’s Nobel lecture, 8 December 2011

Einstein named his discovery in 1907, that inertial acceleration and gravitational acceleration are equivalent, as the “wonderful thought“. However, it took him over eight years to mould this thought into a viable theory, which he did in 1915, as the theory of General Relativity.

In 1917, Einstein published his Universe model which introduced “the cosmological constant”. This was an attempt to balance gravitational attraction with the negative pressure associated with an energy density inherent to the vacuum. The addition was perfectly consistent with his theory, and it allowed him to construct a static model consistent with the Universe as it was understood at that time.

In 1929, American astronomer, Edwin Powell Hubble presented the concept of an Expanding Universe, along with a clear plot of galaxy distance versus redshift. Hubble was credited for discovering the Expanding Universe.

Assuming that the brightest stars he could see in a galaxy all had the same intrinsic brightness, Hubble found that the faster an object was moving away, the fainter its brightest stars were. In other words, the more distant the galaxy, the faster its speed of recession. From this relationship, Hubble concluded that the Universe was expanding.

With the expansion of the Universe as a foundation, a standard model of the Universe was devised, which was still in place in 1998, at the time of Brian and his team’s discovery of the accelerating Universe.

This standard model was based on the theory of general relativity and on two assumptions. The first assumption was that the Universe is homogeneous and isotropic on large scales, and the second assumption was that it is composed of normal matter with density that falls directly in proportion to the volume of space it occupies. Within this framework, they conducted observational tests of the overall theory, while providing values for the fundamental constants within the model.

Expanding the theory of an accelerating universe

Hubble’s law is considered the first observational basis for the phenomenon of an expanding universe, and today it is among the most cited evidence supporting the Big Bang model. According to Hubble, light from distant galaxies seemed to stretch to longer wavelengths, or “redden”, a phenomenon known as “redshift”. The expansion rate is known as “the Hubble constant”.

Building on this observation, Saul Perlmutter, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, led his team, the Supernova Cosmology Project, to begin their own observations in 1988.

Then, in 1994, Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University, assembled the High-Z Supernova Search Team, which was later joined by Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute. Riess played a crucial role in the observations.

Both teams collaborated in discovering the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe. They found over 50 supernovae with light weaker than anticipated. This indicated that the universe was not only expanding as expected but was doing so at an increasingly faster pace.

The discovery came as a complete surprise, even to the discoverers, and its announcement in 1998 profoundly shook the existing view of the universe.

In 2007, symmetry, an online publication on particle physics, published a scan of the page of Riess’s logbook with the data and notes that led to his Nobel Prize-winning discovery.

As Brian points out, there is very little “actual” matter in the universe, with atoms making up only 5% of it, and that the universe is not far from being “geometrically flat”.

As he puts it, the idea of a Big Bang was a natural consequence of an expanding universe.

He believes that a hot and dense universe, which existed 13.8 billion years ago, expanded to ensure the present-day chemical composition of the universe, meaning that the universe is expanding uniformly in all directions.

The 2011 Nobel prize for Physics: Awarded to Brian and two others

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists: Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess for their astonishing discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, which was based on observations of distant exploding stars.

Roger Blandford, the director of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, said, “I’m thrilled for Adam, Brian, and Saul and the teams they have led. It was a great discovery, and it’s looking like a vindication of the original proposal Albert Einstein made 94 years ago.”

Meeting life partner and family life

Brian was undertaking his PhD at Harvard when he unexpectedly encountered romance in the form of Jennifer M. Gordon, a fellow PhD student in economics from Australia.

Brian and Jennifer resided in the same graduate dorm and naturally had the opportunity to meet regularly. It is little wonder that a romance blossomed quietly. They were also bound by their commitment to organise social events for graduate students, encouraging them to enjoy life amidst their studies.

Jennifer persuaded Brian that Australia was the ideal location to pursue astronomy, leading them to move to Canberra in 1994.

Brian acknowledges Jennifer as his great strength and they have cultivated a very close relationship. He attributes their financial stability to Jennifer’s high-paying job.

They have two children, Kiran and Adrian, who are now 28 and 25 years old, respectively. Kiran is involved in IT and game development, while Adrian, the more academically inclined of the two, has just completed an Honours Degree in Physics. He is now considering his next career move, with interest focused on human design and technology.

The glamour of the Nobel prize: Brian’s perspective

The years following the Nobel Prize win have had their advantages and disadvantages. Brian appreciates how the award has sprinkled glamour on his research. He says, “The Nobel Prize is the one way in which science is truly glamorised on a year-to-year basis.” He feels that people who don’t know him view him like a movie star. His challenge now is to keep up with all his work, as requests on his time have increased a thousand-fold.

New horizons: what the future holds for Brian

Brian acknowledges that he cannot avoid being remembered for discovering the accelerating universe. However, he primarily wishes to be remembered as a decent person.

Indeed, in the coming decade, he hopes to engage in deeper observation to fathom the rate at which the universe is expanding. He also desires a better understanding of “Dark Energy” and “Dark Matter.” As Brian says, “Lots of questions to be asked there. We may discover it as a particle, maybe not.”

There are also the difficult questions of astronomy, which could be “within the realm of answerability in my lifetime.” Brian hopes to find life on another planet, a discovery he believes could occur during his lifetime.

As he states, all measurements the team made make sense except for one discrepancy. He explains, “It is the discrepancy between how fast the universe should be expanding based on the very precise measurement when the universe was 80,000 years old, clashing with the current measurement made by many people.” Brian believes this discrepancy is a thorn in the side. “And whenever there is a thorn in the side, it is either a massive mistake or a Pandora’s Box, unlocking the next set of physical understanding.”

Brian anticipates that in the next ten years, scientists will delve into the creation of the universe, especially because the next generation of telescopes are truly built to pose those questions.

Brian Schmidt quotes

“Because astronomy is a frontier science, we exist to probe the frontier. When we truly run out of the frontier, we will become a much smaller discipline, like we used to be, and we’ll do other things that are in the frontier stage.”

“I think a scientist’s job is to explore the Universe, to explore the cosmos around us. People always want to know – why is that useful? Well, on just pure fundamental grounds, on some level it’s like art, it’s like music, it’s aesthetics, it’s like philosophy. You want to know where you are in the Universe.”

“There can be theory, but, you know, the problem is you’ve got to be able to test it. So, theories are one thing, testing is another.”

“Australians have a free spirit and an ability to think outside the box, and that is why I like Australia so much.”

“I have been described by one of my colleagues as a ‘militant agnostic’ with my tagline, ‘I don’t know, and neither do you!’ I take this hardline, fence-sitting position because it is the only position consistent with both my scientific ethos and my conscience.”

“I am an astronomer, and my job is to look to the heavens to better understand the universe and our place in it.”

“Even if I stumble onto the absolute truth of any aspect of the universe, I will not realise my luck and instead will spend my life trying to find flaws in this understanding – such is the role of a scientist.”

“Science is not, despite how it is often portrayed, about absolute truths. It is about developing an understanding of the world, making predictions, and then testing these predictions.”

“I don’t even really know what the Big Bang is, and so when people want to go through and say, ‘Well, I believe that the universe started with God starting it,’ that’s fine by me.”

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.”

“The world has a good reason to be so obsessed with the 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 into things that make our life better.”

“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.”

“Companies are very good at turning ideas into 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.”

“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.”

“We use science ultimately to predict things we don’t know well enough.”

“Some people believe there is absolute knowledge, but as a scientist, we will never know we have achieved absolute knowledge because we will be continuing testing the bounds of knowledge to see if it is broken. As a scientist, we always believe everything we know and do might be broken.”

“The excitement of science is the journey. It is the journey that makes science interesting. The nice thing about science is it can be extrapolated. Science is only as good as the predictions it makes.”

A unique blend of scientist and winemaker

Brian and his wife savour rural life, and for Brian, living on an almost 90-acre farm about 15 minutes from the Canberra city centre provides sheer fulfilment. This is predominantly because of the vineyard he started on the farm, which naturally led to the business of winemaking. He says, “I love to work on that before I go in to work in the morning.”

In fact, Brian is a self-taught winemaker, having learned the intricacies of making a quality Pinot Noir through trial and error, with a little help from local winegrowers. Choosing the hands-on approach to learning winemaking skills, Brian’s thoroughness and methodical approach to life has led him to read many books on the subject.

His perspective on astronomy and winemaking is compelling. “With astrophysics, I strive for perfection. I don’t like making mistakes. Winemaking is all about making mistakes. Where I aim for perfection in my astronomy, in my winemaking I know I’ll never be perfect.”

Nevertheless, his scientific training proves useful when developing a comprehensive database of the area over the years, which is vital to achieving maximum flavour in the harvesting of grapes for wine.

As a scientist takes into account the big picture, Brian is also concerned about the effect future climate change will have on the quality of Pinot Noir. Resourcefully, he has begun experimenting with other varieties of grapes in anticipation of a time when the local climate may no longer be favourable for Pinot Noir.

Currently, Brian’s winemaking is a small operation, predominantly family-run, except for the pruners hired for trimming the vines. His wines have received favourable reviews. He says wryly, “It’s easier to sell your wine when you have a Nobel Prize.”

In fact, at the 2011 Nobel Prize Ceremonies in Stockholm, he presented King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden with a bottle of wine from his winery.

For Brian, “Wine is time and place.” As he explains, “When I open up a bottle of wine – it is vintage – maybe from decades ago and from a different part of the earth. So, every time you drink it, it connects you to another place and another time. In that sense, it is like looking into the sky and seeing a galaxy in a different place. Drinking wine is the same basic idea.”

Just as the mysticism of wine lured Brian into winemaking, the enigma of astronomy and the universe has him hooked for life.

As the American biochemist John Jacob Abel once said, “Greater even than the greatest discovery is to keep open the way to future discovery.” Brian Schmidt is truly living this to the letter.

Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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