ACT News


Nobel prize astrophysicist enjoys the local flavour

When asked how Australia's highest honour compares with receiving a Nobel prize, astrophysicist Brian Schmidt says it is wonderful to be recognised ''at home''.

He might have been born in Alaska, but Professor Schmidt feels truly Australian.

''The way I tell is during the Olympics I always cheer for Australia,'' he said.

He is also taming his own small parcel of the Australian landscape in a bid to produce the country's best pinot noir, with his Maipenrai vineyard on the outskirts of the ACT this year receiving favourable attention from wine cognoscenti including influential British critic Jancis Robinson, who described the 2009 vintage as ''very respectable indeed''.

Between the demands of the harvest and those of an international speaking circuit and role as an ambassador for Australian science and innovation, Professor Schmidt has had a huge 12 months. He was one of four appointed a Companion in the General Division ''for eminent service as a global science leader in the field of physics through research in the study of astronomy and astrophysics, contributions to scientific bodies and the promotion of science education''.


With 12 overseas engagements already booked in for 2013, he will continue raising the profile of science - lobbying in particular for improving teaching quality in maths and science. Had he the ear of the Prime Minister and one policy wish to be granted, Professor Schmidt would introduce a scholarship to lure our best and brightest into teaching science to the nation's children.

He credits his own teachers with igniting his desire to truly understand the universe.

Professor Schmidt and his economist wife Jenny Gordon considered jobs around the world in 1994, but decided the best dual-career option was Canberra - conveniently in the country where Jenny was born.

Professor Schmidt secured a position at the Australian National University at age 27 to begin a series of life-changing measurements of space.

When he and colleagues Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess observed the universe was expanding at an increasing rate, and in the future would not be contracting, they reached the pinnacle of scientific endeavour - claiming the 2011 Nobel prize for physics. Overnight, demand for the witty, still-accented professor and his opinions on almost everything quadrupled.

If Professor Schmidt has one small regret about being catapulted into Nobel prize celebrity, it is the lack of space to contemplate the universe as he used to do when merely a gifted astrophysicist.

''I haven't changed much since winning the Nobel prize, but my opportunities have - for better and for worse,'' he said.

''My chances to sit down and think like I used to are not the same - but my opportunities in talking to amazing people here and around the world are unlike anything I have ever had.''

On Australia Day, Professor Schmidt will be busy on his property, watering the vines and pondering the unseasonably hot temperatures on his favourite tipple.

And what could be more Australian than that?