‘The first thing I did when I won the Nobel Prize was to sit my wife down. I told her I was sorry. I knew everything was about to change’.
It’s not every day you meet a Nobel Prize winner and whilst Brian P. Schmidt appears, at first glance, no different than the average guy you’d bump into at a bus stop, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
We meet in the ruins of Mount Stromlo observatory, burnt to the ground by bush fire in 2003 and as the professor’s voice echoes off the walls, I quickly determine that behind his disarming charm and piercing blue eyes, a brain pulsates as powerful as the Supernovae he’s discovered. ‘You see, I’m just an ordinary guy’, he continues with a wry smile, casually leaning up against the stone ledge in front of me, ‘even my old teacher’s reaction to my win was like, “you?” It ‘s a bit surprising really. I just worked hard and was enthusiastic’. I nodded but I didn’t buy it for a second for Brian seemed to glow, like the anointed ones do and I was well aware that, as one of only fifteen Australian Nobel Laureates, he could intellectually leave me in his wake at any moment of his choosing. In truth, I barely understood the title of his 2011 Nobel winning citation: for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.
Thankfully I wasn’t there to ask about things I would never understand. I was there to pose ‘layman’ questions, seeking simple answers to complicated matters. I began naively. ‘Have you ever seen the dark side of the moon?’. ‘I’ve seen pictures of it’, he answered in his light American drawl, ‘It looks a lot like this side of the moon, the interesting side. It’s only the dark side of the moon for fourteen out of twenty-eight days if you’re on the moon. Because the dark side of the moon is the part that’s not illuminated by the sun and so right now the moon is about half lit from the earth’s point of view. The part that we see is the bright side of the moon and the dark side of the moon is half of what we see and half of the other side’. I nodded my head but my insides twisted. This wasn’t going to be easy for me to follow.
Brian is 48. Born in Montana, he married an Australian and emigrated here in 1994. Described by some as a militant agnostic, his tagline of ‘I don’t know and neither do you’ often raises a smile. He believes in global warming. So much so that he placed a bet on temperatures rising. Ten thousand dollars of his own money, wagered with the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Council. He has recently been appointed Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University. I tentatively pry further. ‘Knowing what you do about space, when you get to the edge of space’…. ‘There is no edge of space’, he interjects, blowing my mind for a second time in less then two minutes. ‘It either keeps going and going, or wraps onto itself like the earth. If you think of space, the edge of space is time and the universe is expanding. It’s 13.8 billion years after the big bang and each second we are moving to a new edge’. ‘I see’, I answer – but I’m lying, drowning in a sea of conceptual infinities, ‘well then’, I gasp, ‘do you think life exists elsewhere in space?’. Brian doesn’t even take a deep breath before he answers; this is bread and butter stuff to him. ‘I have every reason to believe that we’re going to be able to look at planets in the next ten to twenty years and start asking “is there life out there?” But I will say we haven’t gotten anything that we don’t understand at this point. I’d like there to be something but what we do with that information when we find it is a completely different question. Because you have to ask yourself, “would you like to be us?” and the answer would be, “I wouldn’t trust us”. I mean, ask the Aboriginals in Australia. It wasn’t a good thing for them. With every single meeting in the history of humanity on this planet there’s been a winner and a loser and I’m not particularly wanting to take a 50/50 chance with something out there’.
My brain fizzes, no, it actually hurts. I realize that Brian’s name contains the perfect anagram of himself.