Brian Schmidt

On Wednesday, I spoke to parliament about Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, now possibly the most famous person working in my electorate.
Brian Schmidt
12 October 2011


Professor Brian Schmidt's day job involves measuring the difference between exploding stars, studying dark energy and tracking the expansion rate of our universe billions of years back in time. But, after becoming Australia's newest Nobel laureate, the most important task at hand for Professor Brian Schmidt was making sure he was not late for class the next day. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has recognised the incredible work of Professor Schmidt, a lecturer with the ANU's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, awarding him the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, an award which was shared with Professor Adam Riess and Professor Saul Perlmutter, both from the United States.

After 20 years of painstaking research and observation Professor Schmidt joins the likes of Wilhelm Roentgen, who discovered X-rays, and James Chadwick, who discovered the existence of the neutron. He follows on from Australia's last winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, father and son duo William and Lawrence Bragg, who won the prize in 1915 for their work on X-ray crystallography. Let us hope it is not another century before Australia brings home another Nobel Prize in Physics.

To have a scientist of such high calibre as Professor Schmidt teaching at the Australian National University, a university which I am proud to represent, is a great blessing. It is testament to Professor Schmidt's dedication to building the astronomers and physicists of tomorrow. Professor Schmidt's prize-winning body of work focused on the nature of the universe itself. By examining the strength of light coming from exploding stars—supernovas—Professor Schmidt and his team discovered that the universe is speeding up as it expands, rather than slowing down as had previously been thought to be the case.

Reflecting back on a lengthy period of study, Professor Schmidt said, 'What we were hoping to see was how the universe slowed down with the gravity within it over time, but what we found was the opposite: the universe was not slowing down at all; it was speeding up.' In addition to this Professor Schmidt and his team have discovered that 75 per cent of the universe is constituted by dark energy, the existence of which was previously not even known.

The study of physics was the prize area that Alfred Nobel mentioned first of all in his will. At that time, in the late 19th century, physics was regarded as the foremost field of scientific study. With Professor Schmidt's revolutionary discoveries coming to light over 100 years later, it reinforces the value of the constant pursuit of knowledge and reminds us how much we have yet to learn. This is upheld by Professor Schmidt himself, who presented his regular lecture the day after receiving his award. One of his students commented on his commitment to teaching: 'He brings it down to a level where all of us can really understand and he gets really involved in everything he is teaching us.'

Professor Schmidt credits his strong education with his success and he is passionate about ensuring his students are afforded the opportunities that were afforded to him. He said he sees his award as a positive for the broader Australian community and has expressed his hope that it will give aspiring young Australian students the inspiration to pursue a career in their area of interest. Noting the prosperity of Australia, Professor Schmidt said a strong scientific legacy will only be attainable if 'we make our citizens the best educated in the world'. He has highlighted the importance of strategic funding and the management of the Australian education system. According to Professor Schmidt, 'They say in politics that education and science do not win elections but they are what make nations rise and fall.'

Professor Schmidt has been vocal in his public advocacy since winning the Nobel Prize, speaking out, for example, in defence of the strong consensus of Australian science that the world is warming and humans are causing that warming. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Schmidt at an ANU reception last Friday. When I went up to shake his hand, he had just been mobbed by a group of what he thought to be about 200 students. He said it was not something he ever thought would happen to him on a university campus.

I asked Professor Schmidt what he thought was most important to report back to the parliament as the member representing the Australian National University, and he made two points. First of all, he said his Nobel prize was a reminder of the fact that the Australian National University is not just another university; it is an institution that was created with the notion of furthering research boundaries. It is the nation's premier research institution. Professor Schmidt said it was only at the ANU that he felt he could have done this prize-winning work. Secondly, Professor Schmidt reminded me that it is the international outlook of Australian academia that allowed him to do the work that he did. It allowed him to collaborate with international teams in the United States and Europe. Professor Schmidt said that, while many researchers in the US are at the cutting edge, sometimes they can forget to look outside the boundaries of their own country. That is not a mistake that Australian researchers typically make.

In closing, I would like to also pay tribute to the recent Nobel laureates in economics, an area which I know a little more about than physics. The Nobel this year went for work on empirical macroeconomics and particularly the identification of low-frequency macroeconomic events. These questions are absolutely critical in considering the optimal role of fiscal policy. Thomas Sargent did his work on structural econometrics, emphasising rational expectations, which is the notion that economic decision makers do not make systematic mistakes in forecasting. It is an important framework, particularly for interpreting the inflation and unemployment experience of the 1970s and 1980s. Christopher Sims did his work around vector autoregression techniques aimed at identifying the causal impact of low-frequency events using time series data. I commend them both for their work in economics.

Thanks to Claire Daly from my office for her work on this speech.

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