Brian Schmidt on space, wine and the Nobel Prize
Although Brian Schmidt eventually proved the universe was expanding, his original hypothesis stated the opposite. Still, the scientist believes that it's crucial to publish what you see, whether or not you like the results.
Image: UNSW

Australian Nobel Prize winner, Brian Schmidt, kicked off discussions last week at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, in Lindau, Germany. As the newest member of the Nobel Prize winner community, as well as the latest edition to the conference, Schmidt, proving that Nobel Prize winners are human, admitted to being nervous about opening the conference.

As the youngest Laureate present at the meetings by about 15 years, the Australian described the conference as a unique experience. “It’s rather unusual to give a talk with 27 Nobel Prize winners in the room, you feel like you’re sort of being graded…so it is a little intimidating,” he stated. Dr Wolfgang Schürer, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for the Lindau meetings, said he was very excited to have Schmidt at the conference.

Schmidt won the Nobel Prize for Physics last year for the discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate through observation of distant supernovae. But he opened the meetings with a more technical talk, focussing on his work. Even though a supernova occurs in each galaxy approximately only once every 500 years, the gigantic universe has around 10 type 1a supernovae every minute. Schmidt and his team essentially detected these supernovae at a distance of more than five billion light years, estimating their age, subtracting their signals from the vast quantity of digital data in order to record their luminosity.

Though it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the research team, as these observations contradicted the very hypothesis of his original research, which aimed to measure the slowdown of the expansion of the universe, not the accelerated expansion. Schmidt admits that at first, the research results were hard to take. “There were arguments within our team, but in the end we decided, we are scientists, we don’t like what we are seeing, but we have to publish it, because that’s what science is about.”

Yet the fact that competing a Supernova Cosmology project at the University of California in Berkeley was receiving the same results, along with support from the theoretical community, meant that the results were not dismissed, but taken into consideration. Schmidt summed up the process “The universe does what the universe does, our job is to measure it and yes the way things panned out is maybe a little gentler and nicer to us than I was expecting, ultimately it was several things coming together at once that made [the theory] become so accepted so quickly.”

Despite receiving the highest honour in the science community, the Nobel Prize, Schmidt insists it has not changed his research. “The only thing its really changed is the amount of time I have right now, I mean it opens up lots of bridges … it’s a great vehicle to remind the world why we do science.”

Young Australian researcher attendee of the conference and PhD student of Schmidt, Andrew Casey, describes the recognition as a link between science and society. “It’s the one prize in science that everybody knows, it’s very important, and endears a lot of respect.” Casey says the prize has been beneficial for Australian science. “It reminds Australians that we do world class research ... it’s more in the forefront of people’s minds,” he stated.

But Schmidt insists he receives no special treatment because of the prize “my ability to get telescope time is unchanged, I get rejected just as much as I used to, my ability to get things to referees hasn’t changed, my ability to get money is potentially better, but within Australia I already maxed out any grants that I was allowed to get before the Nobel Prize.” He stated, “I’m somewhat unusual in that I’m 45 years old, I still have a twenty year career in front of me … If I’m going to be relevant 10 or 15 years from now I need to still be an active scientist. But there’s only 24 hours in a day.”

And it’s those next 10 or 15 years that the scientist is most excited about. According to Schmidt, we’re heading into a period where smaller telescopes will be able to do more, and we know how to use the telescopes we do have a lot more economically.

As a young researcher in Australian astronomy, Casey agrees. “A lot of new stuff is coming. We’re going to be able to do things we’ve never done before, to be able to get a direct image of a planet is incredible, we’re getting better at using the stuff we have.”

In terms of what’s next in the world of astronomy, Schmidt says there’s “Not an expectation, but a real question mark”. He states that 95.5% of the universe is still unknown and that questions still need to be answered. “There are still huge questions in astronomy, is their life on other planets? ... These answers are reachable in the next few decades,” said Schmidt.

The big answers to these questions could very well be found in the next generation of Australian scientists, which Schmidt is very passionate about. He donated $100,000 of his Nobel Prize money to the Australian Academy of Science's PrimaryConnections program, which aims to improve primary school teachers’ confidence and competence for teaching science. With his donation, Schmidt hoped to help restart the program that had its government funding cut in 2011. “This was one of the first things I thought about using the money to do, I knew the money would keep them afloat for a month, and my hope was that they could use it to raise money from the larger community…get the state governments to chip in.”

According to Schmidt, a package in this month’s state budget has been put through for the program. “Both sides of government more or less supported what was in that package, which is great, because education it’s not something to play politics with.”

Schmidt emphasises that the program transformed ordinary teachers into extraordinary teachers. “Many primary school teachers are not that comfortable with science and this program was there to change that, provide course material, training and things to help them teach the subject matter in a way that they were going to be comfortable and competent,” said Schmidt. “If you turn kids off science in primary school, you never get them back … science is curiosity, if you kill that you’ve done more damage than if you hadn’t taught science at all.”

Casey also stresses the importance of science education in Australia. “Every scientist had that one teacher at their school that had an impact on them in science, if you make science accessible, if you make it a fun and tangible thing, it isn’t such a scary monster only for people who can do differential equations in their head."

In the meantime, between his outreach programs and science, Schmidt tries to steal time away working in his vineyard, which produces and sells an exclusive 3,000 bottles a year, his secret? According to Schmidt the answer’s in the science “I’m producing really good wine, turns out winning a Nobel Prize is good for the wine business.”

Editor's Note: Katrina Beavan attended the 2012 Nobel Laureate Meetings in Lindau for ScienceAlert. Katrina is an avid travel blogger and politics enthusiast with a passion for languages, travel and science. In her last year of a Journalism and Arts degree, she works as a freelance journalist and has written travel stories, reviews and more for various online sites. Reporting for ABC radio during the 2011 Australian floods was a highlight in her career. Follow her on Twitter.