Gang-gang. The Life of Brian Schmidt
Advertisement

Gang-gang. The Life of Brian Schmidt

''Now, how big do you think the universe is?'' astronomer and Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt asked Tuesday's rapt audience in the hall of the Turner School .

''Really big!'' a preschool voice piped up, confidently, authoritatively.

The Turner School STEM Festival (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is under way and Dr Schmidt was there to open it.

The Turner School STEM Festival (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is under way and Dr Schmidt was there to open it. Credit:Elesa Kurtz

Schmidt said that yes, that was true, ''But who thinks it's even bigger than that?''

A forest of little hands flew up, for the hall was as crammed with green-uniformed children as the Milky Way is crammed with stars, with primary, preschool and kindergarten urchins all there to see and hear the 2011 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Advertisement
Correction. And (blush) Tuesday's piece passed on the professor's quote from a newspaper quoting Facebook that ''Gillard is the hottest ranger you ever saw''. But of course Facebook and the offending newspaper called her a ''ranga'', not a ranger. This was my annual spelling mistake.

Correction. And (blush) Tuesday's piece passed on the professor's quote from a newspaper quoting Facebook that ''Gillard is the hottest ranger you ever saw''. But of course Facebook and the offending newspaper called her a ''ranga'', not a ranger. This was my annual spelling mistake.

The Turner School STEM Festival (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is under way and Dr Schmidt was there to open it.

This special assembly had got under way with a singing of the national anthem, when in the circumstances we might have had more fun singing the Monty Python Galaxy Song. It's the main source of what little most of us know about the universe, and then its last verse captures so perfectly the bewildering human condition. All together now, readers!

''The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding/In all of the directions it can whiz./As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,/Twelve million miles a minute,/and that's the fastest speed there is.

''So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,/How amazingly unlikely is your birth./And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,/'Cause there's bugger all down here on earth.''

But the pupils and I quickly got over our disappointment at this inexplicable omission from the program because Dr Schmidt, using a big screen and big pictures, was very entertaining.

''I'm going to tell you a little bit about what I do and I think the best way to do that is to tell you how big the universe is, because I study how big the universe is.

''Now we astronomers in figuring out how big things are ... we have to use how fast light travels. It's so fast! It means that I could travel from here to Sydney, if I were light, in a hundredth of a second.

''Of course the sun [up came a big picture of that tangerine inferno] is really big and it's a long, long way away. It takes light eight minutes to reach us from the sun, so if the sun was to go out right now [looking at his watch] we won't find out about it until 12.28.'' (Titters of childish mirth.)

And so on to our own wondrous galaxy ''which is star after star after star'', he enthused in wonder, as if the academic study of the firmament has not made it any less magical for him.

''It [our Milky Way] is a hundred billion stars. That's a One, Zero Zero Zero, Zero Zero Zero, Zero Zero Zero, Zero Zero.''

Two hundred little jaws (and my big, bearded one) dropped open in wonder.

''Now that,'' he explained of a mysterious picture (and not allowing for the possibility that there might be the children of Creationists in his audience, brought up to believe that God created everything in one week of busy cobbling), ''is the universe of 13.8 billion years ago.

''But the universe here doesn't have any stars and galaxies because they haven't been made yet. And it was just before this time the universe was formed in what we like to call the Big Bang. So this is the stuff I study, how the universe started, and how it made galaxies.''

By the end one felt sure the children, like me, were brimming with questions about cosmology, about whether there's intelligent life in space and why there's bugger all of it on earth. But after a ribbon-cutting the laureate shimmered away, perhaps off to ogle 13.8 billion years of history.

Something in the hair

As reported on Tuesday, at Monday's public lecture at the ANU's Gender Institute (in the School of Indignant Studies), visiting Canadian professor Linda Trimble railed against the media's sexist preoccupation with how female politicians look. She showed how in the 2010 election campaign the press gibbered on about Julia Gillard's hairdos and hemlines while having little to say about Tony Abbott's appearance.

But of course a partial (only partial) explanation for this is that, thanks to the inhibited conservatism of male plumage, Abbott dresses and looks the same every day, all of the time. Meanwhile, women are blessed (cursed?) with the opportunity/expectation of looking different every day, even if the changes are only of, say, earrings.

As one of those reporters who always likes to put some descriptive colour into stories I have some sympathy with some of my colleagues who, in a campaign like 2010's, simply have no new colour to impart to a description of Abbott (his absurdly tinted, comical skullcap of hair staying much the same tint day after day, his dull, ''prime-ministerial-material'' suits always the same). But they do take the opportunity, for colour's sake, to mention what new things Gillard has done with her hair, what novel bling she is wearing.

There is a point at which this kind of thing does become sexist and vile but that point isn't reached as early or as often as Professor Trimble, a sexism-seeking missile, imagines.

Correction. And (blush) Tuesday's piece passed on the professor's quote from a newspaper quoting Facebook that ''Gillard is the hottest ranger you ever saw''. But of course Facebook and the offending newspaper called her a ''ranga'', not a ranger. This was my annual spelling mistake.