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Credit: University of Montana
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Interview of Brian Schmidt by David Zierler on June 5, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Brian Schmidt, Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor and President of the Australian National University. Schmidt surveys the Covid crisis from his perspective at ANU, and he describes his current interests in cosmology. He recounts his childhood in Montana and Alaska in support of his father’s career in fisheries biology, and he describes his undergraduate education as a dual major in physics and astronomy at the University of Arizona. Schmidt describes the opportunities that led to his graduate work at Harvard, where he worked under the direction of Bob Kirshner and where he met and developed a formative relationship with Adam Riess on supernovae research. He explains his decision to remain at Harvard for his postdoctoral research and he narrates the origins of the High-Z collaboration and its interactions with Saul Perlmutter’s team at Berkeley. Schmidt describes his postdoctoral appointment at ANU as leader of High-Z, and he describes how the collaboration discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe and the process of communicating its findings. He describes the “buzz” leading to the Nobel Prize and his subsequent focus on the SkyMapper project. Schmidt discusses his responsibilities as Vice Chancellor which overlap strongly with Australian national policy, and he describes how he sees the reality of climate change in his 21 years of grape growing. At the end of the interview, Schmidt reflects on how the High-Z discovery has changed astronomy broadly, and he conveys a sense of wonder at the accidental nature by which the team arrived at its discovery.
OK, this is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is Saturday evening, June 5, 2021, in the United States, and it is Sunday morning, June 6, 2021, in Australia, where I am joined by Dr. Brian P. Schmidt. Brian, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me.
Brian, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Sure. I have a complicated title. I am Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor and President of the Australian National University.
Now, the title vice chancellor, I'm familiar with that within the University of California system. What does that mean at ANU?
So, it is from the English system. And so, Vice Chancellor and President, I am the equivalent of the president of the university. So that's the term that would familiarly be used in the United States. But the vice chancellor of Cambridge and Oxford, for example, are like I am.
Now, is managing the pandemic and related crises number one on your agenda right now in your role?
Indeed. The university having to deal with the pandemic in all of its manifestations as well as trying to ensure that the university is doing its job for the post-COVID recovery. It's a very hard part of the job, getting us to think about the future. My sense is the world is at a very critical point right now, and we have a lot to deal with, with respect to having eight billion people living on the planet successfully together. And that has to be a big focus of what we do while we're coping with the details of the pandemic.
Is ANU in a remote learning environment, hybrid, fully in-person?
So, we are largely fully in-person now and have been all year. We were hybrid last year. I do have several thousand students who are stuck overseas, and they're in an online environment. And we tried to tailor online to them directly. But fourth-year quantum mechanics or something, they're going to be in a hybrid environment. But largely, I've tried to get it back to fully in-person. As you are aware, Australia, and certainly Canberra, has not been in lockdown since June last year. So, we have been largely free to go about our business for the last six to eight months.
And how much of that is about vaccination? Is that widely available? Anyone who wants one can get one?
No, we've been very slow on vaccination. I have my first Astra-Zeneca shot, and I'll get my second one in July. About 3 or 4% of the population is vaccinated right now. It has been entirely due to being able to exclude the disease from Australia and, essentially, these things accidentally fall or rise. And we've managed to keep it in the falling category most of the time. That being said, Victoria, where Melbourne is, is in lockdown right now because they have a small number of cases that they're struggling to control.
Beyond your administrative duties, in the world of science, are you able to keep up an active research agenda?
A small one. I'm not sure if I'd call it active. I get to do a little bit. We have papers, for example, out on extremely metal-poor stars that, I think, demonstrate that the R process, where the heavy elements are formed, are not only formed in neutron star mergers, but I think there's some evidence we have that they're formed in so-called hyper novae. So that's a paper that should be coming out here in the next several weeks that I was involved at least in the margins of, so that's good.
Beyond your own research, more broadly in the fields of cosmology, astrophysics, observation, what's compelling to you right now? What are you following most closely these days?
Well, I try to follow across everything. I think at some level, cosmology, in terms of the type of cosmology I did, is at an interesting point of being a little boring. The Dark Energy Survey's just come out. I was part of that before I became Vice Chancellor, and I've just had to pull back on that. But largely, the status quo prevails. I know there's a little bit of excitement about clustering not being exactly the same. I think that the mismatch between the local value of the Hubble constant as done very carefully by Adam Riess, who you talked to as part of the series, and the other methods that essentially bring the distant scale from very high red shift down is interesting. I don't know how we're going to resolve it. Keep picking away at it, we'll see. But most of the excitement in cosmology, to me, right now is more in gravitational waves, signals, black hole buildup over time, very early evolution of galaxies in the early universe. I think that's going to be really exciting going forward.
So, if cosmology is in a little bit of a stasis right now, it's a little boring, as you say, to what extent is that because the interplay of observation and theory is not where it needs to be?
Well, I'm not sure if I'd say it's not where it needs to be. I think we're in a very hard spot. So, the reality is, there's not much for us to go out and test right now. So that's true. What are the big ideas? Not a lot when it comes to the universe itself. What's dark energy? What tests can we do about dark matter? And the answer is, we're doing them, but they're pretty blunt, and they don't seem to be showing anything particularly interesting. That would be my summary, except for that problem with the Hubble constant. That still needs to be worked on. And that could be the tip of an iceberg, or it could be a floating piece of plastic. We just don't know, in my opinion.
So, we are really looking to theory. But cosmology is a broad church. It's going back and understanding how the universe formed. And I think there's a really interesting thing emerging of how we got so many black holes in the universe, what's going on there? Can we do them entirely from a first generation of stars that collapsed straight to black holes? Do we need to have primordial black holes? I don't know. So that, to me, is a pretty interesting question right now.
To what extent is the avalanche of data that's coming out of all of these observations problematic? In other words, even with AI, we simply don't have the brain power to analyze all of this data. Is there something that's possibly interesting there that we just don't have the bandwidth to see?
My sense is, we're getting almost all of it out. And we have the bandwidth to analyze all of the data. We just don't have the money. And this is always true, right? Science is probably fractal if you think about it. There are just layers, upon layers, upon layers of complexity, and we always have to choose what we do. And yes, we can grab a lot of data in all sorts of ways, but we always before had to choose where to look. So, you're always limited. So, I think we're pretty good at picking the low-hanging fruit. Are we missing something? Almost certainly. But that's part of the scientific process. So, I don't buy that argument, if you really want to know. We threw a lot of data on the floor when we did our work in 1998 because we were focused on measuring the decelerating universe. We weren't trying to find M star flares in the Milky Way. We found them. We didn't quite know what it was, and I was kind of interested by it, but we've kept focused on what we were doing. You always have to do that.
A nomenclature question. Of course, you're American, you're US-trained, but you've been in Australia long enough with research that I'm curious if the boundaries in nomenclature between astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology have a unique flair to them from an Australian perspective.
Nomenclature, no. We're very globalized. So more than half my staff at Mount Stromlo are not from Australia. Vegemite, and bonnets on cars, and things like that, we have our own nomenclature, and you do adapt in that way. But science is pretty universal. It's quite interesting. I took Russian as an undergraduate, and I've never used it, but even the Russians, when you can read the stuff, you're like, "Oh, that's the same word. Supernova." I can literally listen to a French astronomy talk, and they're the most protective of their language, and I understand many of the words because they're all the same words. It's just the verbs, adjectives, all the other bits that cause me problems. But the nouns, I'm pretty solid on when it comes to astronomy, and it turns out, winemaking!
Well, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. I'm excited to hear about this. I spent two of the best years of my life as a graduate student at the University of Montana. Love Missoula. Tell me first about your parents and where they're from.
Sure. So, my mother is from a town called Richey, Montana. Very far east town of about 250 people. She went out to Missoula, which was the big university at the time. Still is one of the big universities for Montana. So, that would've been 1965, she would've started. Maybe '64. And she was doing things like history. She had been part of the debate competition in high school, so she was a very vivacious person. My father came from North Dakota, a town called Bisbee, which is also about 300 people. Featured on Late Night with David Letterman once, so it's on the map. Richey was never featured on Late Night. And he also went to Montana to do a biology degree. They met, and I appeared in their sophomore year.
I was born in February 1967, so my mom was 19, my dad had just turned 20. And so, yes, my parents were out in front of the summer of love, which was the next year. So, I obviously don't remember my parents being undergraduates, but I know many of the group of friends they had in the middle of the 60s at the university, and then I do start remembering things when my father went off and did his master's degree in Utah. Those are my first memories. So, it was kind of a privileged position to be in, the center of attention of my parents’ world, so it was a good childhood!
What was your father's graduate work in?
So, my father ended up doing a PhD at Oregon State in fisheries biology. And so, he's worked in a whole range of biological things in his life, done a lot of consulting. Because when he finished his PhD, we moved back to Missoula. My mother did her master's degree there in speech communication. I started 1st grade back in Missoula. And my father did consulting there. We moved to Helena Montana where he co-started his own firm. We eventually moved up to Alaska and there he worked on the Susitna Dam project before working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, first in Anchorage, then Kodiak, and eventually Kenai.
Did your father involve you at all in his career? Did you have a rough sense of what it meant to be a working scientist?
Oh, absolutely. So again, I remember specifically during his PhD, my father was working on a whole bunch of things. But I would hang out in the lab with him because childcare was not easy then, and my mother was working, just trying to make sure we had enough food to put on the table. And so, I would regularly go in and be part of his stuff. He would have to go out and do things as part of his consulting work later on, and I tell a story of him having to collect bugs around this road site. And driving down, we had a Buick Skylark at the time, and a big, long butterfly net about eight feet long out the window, in the ditch, and my dad driving, like, 25-miles-an-hour down the ditch, and me as a 6-year-old, holding onto grim death, trying to keep that thing down in the ditch. And in the end, you pull it out to see what's there. And, oh my God, you should see the bugs. It's like nothing you've seen before. So yeah, I have little stories like that.
And what took the family to Alaska?
So before going to Alaska, we were in Missoula, went to Helena. My father helped start a company in Helena, my mother also started a company in Helena. And we were there through my primary schooling in Helena, Montana. Very happy time of my life, to be honest. And then, we moved to Lincoln, Montana. Lincoln, Montana has a few notorieties. A town of roughly 500 when we were there. It's up over a mile high. Coldest temperature in the history of the lower 48 was just outside of Lincoln, Montana. And it was cold. But it was also the home of the Unabomber. So, believe it or not, I ran into the Unabomber. I'm almost scared to say this, but he used to shop at the store that my parents owned in Lincoln, Montana.
Obviously, you didn't know this at the time.
No, but I remember him. And when it happened, I was like, "Oh my God, I remember that guy." So, anyway, that was an interesting revelation. But my father, then, got a job working for the state of Alaska on a big dam project up in Alaska, for Fish and Game. And so, for a biologist like my father, Alaska is sort of nirvana. And so, my father did a whole range of jobs up there. Over time, eventually moving to Kodiak, Alaska, where he got to do biology of essentially the fisheries out of Kodiak, which is one of the largest fisheries ports in the world. And so, you see The Most Dangerous Catch and stuff, that was the fishery that my dad regulated. And he'd been out in those seas, normally on the fisheries boat, not one of those boats that you see. But pretty full-on there.
And you stayed in Anchorage through high school?
Yeah. And so, then, I went to 7th and half of 8th grade in Lincoln, Montana, and then half of 8th grade and all of high school in Anchorage.
Was the curriculum in math and science strong for you?
Yeah. The schools in Anchorage were truly exceptional. And when I say truly exceptional, it's not obvious to people, but the richest private school anyone's ever gone to, I reckon it wouldn't have been any better than what I had. It was a truly exceptional school.
What were some of the classes that might've been useful for you, narrowing your interests in science?
Well, it was exactly the fact that it wasn't narrow. I had great English, great history. I had a group of six science teachers who taught pretty much anything you wanted. So, I took biology in my first year, chemistry my second year, physics, I believe, in my third year, and then I did AP biology in my fourth year. So, the interesting thing is, I could've done AP chemistry. They didn't do AP physics. But I think people worry about how much they learn in high school, about the details. You need to learn to learn and learn to love to learn in high school.
And I think that English class is probably the one that's as memorable as any of my classes there. It set me up in my life, quite frankly, to think and be able to do things out of my comfort zone. And that's good, being able to do things outside your comfort zone. But I did sports, I did theater, I did band and orchestra. I did almost anything you could think of there. And some of my teachers worried that I was a jack of all trades and a master of none. And you know what? Good place to be in high school. Be a jack of all trades, in my opinion.
Is that to say that when you were thinking about college, science was not necessarily the obvious path?
No, I always knew I was going to be a scientist. I saw my dad from about the age of 3. Knew I was going to do science. Always thought I was going to go do meteorology. At the Anchorage Forecasting Office, the National Weather Service, I volunteered, and they took me on for a summer. And I'd always pictured myself in a forecast office since I was very small, and it just wasn't quite what I expected. It was a good experience, but not quite what I expected. So, I had to kind of reset my thoughts. "What am I going to do?" And I really didn't know. I loved astronomy, but I was like, "Astronomers are the smartest people in the world. I'm clearly not the smartest person in the world. There are almost no jobs. Why would I do this?"
And I convinced myself, "OK, I like astronomy, so I will do it well." And I had no real expectation of ever becoming an astronomer, but I knew it would teach me physics, math, computing, some engineering, probably, for instrumentation, and I'd go out and get a great job. And you know what? I was way ahead of my time. That is exactly the way people should be thinking whenever they do anything. But being an astronomer was not really something I expected to emerge out of it. I expected to get an interesting education.
Between the obvious geographical considerations, applying from Alaska, your grades, and your family's financial capacities, what kind of schools did you apply to for undergraduate?
Well, this is an interesting one. My background was that I didn't apply to very many places. I was going to apply to Caltech, I got the form, and I said, "This is nuts. I'm not doing this." And I was probably correct. I would've never gotten into Caltech. I applied to the University of Arizona. I knew very well of its astronomy capability. My grandparents lived in Phoenix a couple hours away. Attractive. So, I knew Arizona. It was a public school. My parents went to a public school. The whole notion of an East Coast private school seemed not right to me. And one of my best friends went off to Princeton, so I knew there was an option there. But I didn't apply to any places like that. And my father did his PhD at Oregon State, which had a very strong meteorology department, so I applied there as well, still thinking I might do meteorology. And the University of Arizona had a pretty strong meteorology department as well.
But in the end, I didn't give myself many options. Why did I not apply to the University of Washington? No idea. It would've been a very strong physics department to have gone to. But life turned out fine. But I did not give myself many options, and I didn't give myself many options because where people are from—your upbringing and background—define a lot of what you see your options as being. I grew up in a very educationally privileged background, but not in a socioeconomically privileged background. And so, you just think you don't have many options, so you don't give yourself many. And when you see kids whose parents don't have a PhD like mine did, they constrain their options even more. So, I think there's a real lesson there.
Now, at Arizona, it was a dual degree in physics and astronomy? Or that was a joint program.
It was a dual degree. So, I actually did two degrees. I took a lot of classes. I found life at university there was quite challenging. I always remember when the University of Arizona was announced as one of the Playboy Party Schools of the Year—it deserved that reputation then. And it was kind of crazy and not really my scene, if you want to know. So, it took me a little while to find my groove there. And I made up for it by taking lots of classes. I took, typically, six or seven classes every semester, including I think eight in one semester. Wouldn't recommend it. So, I just loaded up the classes and ended up with the 30 extra units that you need to get a double degree. A double degree, if I can be honest, isn't worth anything to your life. What's interesting are the experiences that embody it.
Were there any professors that you would consider a mentor or who exerted a particularly strong intellectual influence on you as an undergraduate?
Oh, absolutely. Despite my challenges, University of Arizona was good to me. So, there was a professor, Thomas Swihart, who passed away quite a while ago now, and he was the undergraduate coordinator there. He was a superb teacher, theoretical astrophysicist who'd worked at Los Alamos and was the brother-in-law of Allan Sandage. So, interesting stories there, which when enough time passes, I will talk about. But not today. So, he was a true mentor there. And then, I had some other good people who looked after me there, especially John McGraw in my later years. But Tom Swihart was the real anchor.
Did you understand as an undergraduate that there was a binary in physics and astronomy between observation and experimentation on one side and theory on the other?
No, and I still don't believe that to be true. So, I think about who taught me. My fourth year, I took a class that had Chris Impey, Simon White, Craig Hogan, and Bill Tifft. But theory and observation were always mixed in that department. They were door-to-door, and I just thought that was the way it went. And yeah, there were observers who did stuff, but they sat with and talked to theorists. And you dragged the theorists whenever you could to the telescope because it was good for you and them.
Now, did you get any telescope time as an undergraduate?
Yeah, I got time. I did work on some of the smaller telescopes, did photometry. Yeah, I got telescope time. But I mainly worked on a big project. So, I worked on one of the first big data projects. My other very important mentor there was John McGraw. He brought me in on the research side, and I was part of his group for three years. So, we had Swihart on the teaching side, and John McGraw on the research side.
Now, to superimpose your comments thinking about undergraduates from high school, where East Coast private schools were not in your milieu, what changed for you that ultimately led to your admission to Harvard, or even for you to think that that was within range as an undergraduate?
So, I was a very good student in high school. But I had two friends who, quite frankly, were and still are a lot smarter than me. One went to Princeton, one left high school early and went off to a liberal arts college. And so, when I told my very good high school teachers I was going off to do physics and astronomy, they were like, "Brian, you're smart, but you're not that smart. Better people than you have failed before you." That's what they said. And they didn't do that to be mean. They did it because they were genuinely concerned. They really liked me. And their view was that I was just not going to be smart enough to do physics and astronomy. I didn't think I was smart enough to do physics and astronomy, but I was happy to give it a try. But when I went to Arizona, partially because I wasn't that happy, I really focused.
But I wasn't doing theater, I wasn't doing band, I wasn't doing as much athletics. And those things took eight hours a day. So, what emerged over that time is, rather than finishing third in my high school class of 350—and those two people who finished ahead of me, I realized, were truly exceptional and not normal to have in a high school class [laugh]; let me emphasize how good it was for me to have those two friends—I finished at the top of my class of 4,000 at Arizona. But I also learned to learn. I kept learning. And so, I caught up, and I learned a lot. I became a much better student than I guess I was in high school. And I was used to things not being easy. So, you just keep moving forward and trudging along even though things were not easy. Things were never that easy for me. And so, I was able to keep learning to learn.
And so, at the end, my senior year at Arizona, I decided to apply to the top 12 graduate schools at the time, hoping I'd get into one place. At the time, the GRE physics was really important. I did perhaps better on the GRE physics than I was expecting. Probably about right, when I think about it. But that was enough, it turned out, with all my letters of recommendation that I got from Arizona because those people knew how smart I was. And they could translate the fact that I was at the University of Arizona in a very competitive environment to get into graduate school into something tangible.
Simon White, Ramesh Narayan, Rob Kennicutt, John McGraw, who was my supervisor, they were very well-known people. So, they could say, "No, no, actually, you should let this guy in." So, I applied to all those places, and as I said, got into essentially all of them. The only place I did not get into was Berkeley. And John McGraw was so incensed, he called up his mates there and, basically, got a way for me to get into Berkeley as well. And then, I had the real challenge of figuring out where to go.
Did you apply to both physics and astronomy programs? Or you were focused on astronomy at that point?
Oh, totally on astronomy. I had not applied to physics at all.
What was the thinking there? You were sure that was the field that you wanted to pursue?
Yeah, I was definitely sure I liked astronomy. And I just wouldn't have been that interested doing solid state physics or something. That's not me.
Although, astrophysics, cosmology, you could've pursued those things in a physics program.
Well, you could've, but not at the best schools. So, the only place that that's true is probably Princeton, but that would've been very much the theoretical side. I was definitely going to be on the observational side. So, if I was going to become an observational astronomer, almost none of the top physics departments did that. If you're going to Princeton, you go to the astronomy department. University of Chicago had been one of the places that you might go, but it had no observational program at the time. So, not a place I would've applied to.
So, was it Harvard by reputation? Did you know of Bob Kirshner beforehand?
I applied before I met Bob Kirshner. But Harvard was Harvard. I applied to it because it was still considered one of the strong schools. It was not well-regarded at the University of Arizona when I applied. Bob Kirshner did come out and give a talk in 1989, the Marc Aaronson lecture. Marc Aaronson had passed away when I was an undergraduate, had a telescope accident. So, he gave the first lecture there. I had been working a bit on supernovae. He was Mr. Supernovae. And I had talked to him. So, Bob is who called me up in February, literally on my birthday, and said, “Come to Harvard.” And I had gotten in at this point to Santa Cruz, which was the first place I thought I would go to, Caltech, Hawaii, Texas, a whole bunch of places.
And I remember going and saying, “Well, Bob, thanks for the offer, but I'm going to decide between three universities.” And he was like, “You're not going to even give us a chance?” And I was like, “Well, I've got to make a decision.” He said, “Oh, come on. Have you ever been to Harvard?” “No.” And he said, “Well, you need to come out and visit.” I said, “I just don't think it's fair to you to pay for me to come out when I'm almost certainly not going to go there.” And he said, “Brian, Harvard can afford it. Just come out.” So, I said, “OK, what the hell.” So, we connected it with my spring break. I went off and visited my friend in Princeton from high school, went up to Harvard, and I really liked it. When I visited, I got to hang out with Sean Carroll, a first year PhD student at the time, who most people know as a physicist, and a whole bunch of other well-known astronomers these days.
And I really enjoyed the grouping of people. I was kind of surprised. It wasn't at all what I expected. I was expecting people wearing bowties at dinner and stuff. So, I was kind of like, “Wow, that was actually really nice.” And then, I went off and visited Caltech, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley on the next trip. I'd made a decision not to go to Hawaii. One of the astronomers there still never forgave me, even later on in life. It was all right. She was like, “You're from Alaska. You have to come to Hawaii.” But when I went to Caltech, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley, they just didn't resonate. I was really surprised. I was really expecting to go to one of those schools. And in the end, Bob Kirshner showed up, gave that talk, and everyone at Arizona is telling me, “Go to Santa Cruz. And if you don't go to Santa Cruz, at least go to Caltech.” And as I said, I saw Bob and said, “If I can work with you, I will come to Harvard.” Because that was what my gut feeling was telling me.
Do you remember what Bob talked about during that lecture?
And you got the full Bob treatment, his whole personality? You knew who he was?
You never have any doubt who Bob is. It's one of his strengths. And so, yeah, that was the decision. Went out to Harvard. At some level, Harvard being a rich institution got me to visit it, but it ended up being a really interesting place that brought people from a variety of backgrounds, my wife, for example, from Australia, and was a real melting pot. It wasn't just an out-of-touch elitist institution. It was a melting pot of the world, of a lot of people like me. It was the place I found people like me.
And Bob wasn't just recruiting you to Harvard, he was recruiting you to be his student.
He wasn't recruiting me at all to be his student. I just went up and basically said, “I want to come work for you. I can't decide where to go. If I can work with you, I will come to Harvard.” So, he recruited me earlier, but this thing completely just happened to be timed—if he had not done that talk, I probably wouldn't have gone to Harvard. I probably would've gone to Santa Cruz and worked with Stan Woosley. It wouldn't have been all bad!
What was Bob working on at the moment you connected with him to be his student?
Well, Bob was working on a lot of things. He had a student, Ron Eastman, working on using supernovae to measure distance. He was a theoretical student. And then, he had all of this data he had gathered using the IUE satellite. And he was very keen on me to analyze all of that ultraviolet data of SN 1987A. I have to admit, I was not interested in that at all. I was really interested in what Ron Eastman was working on. I talked to Ron, and I came back with a counterproposal, said, “How about if I measure distances to supernovae with Ron Eastman?” Which is, of course, what Bob did for his PhD. And Bob was like, “Oh, that's a much better idea. Let's do that.” So, that's how we got started.
What were some of the broader ideas with regard to supernovae at that time?
Well, we knew there were three types at that point. We had figured out that there were massive stars, type II supernovae, there were these Ib supernovae, which were the naked cores of massive stars, and there were type Ia. We assumed that the massive stars made neutron stars, possibly black holes. We assumed that that's where the R process I talked to you earlier about, one of my recent things, the rapid neutron process for making heavy elements occurred, only in massive type II supernovae or the Ibs. Turns out we got that one wrong. So, the basic story was in place, as it is now. But we've just been able to put a lot more detail onto it.
What was the process for developing your thesis research, and how closely involved was Bob to that development?
As I said, I ended up doing what I proposed, but it was with Ron Eastman, his student, who then became his post-doc. Bob was pretty hands-off in one sense, that he let you get on and do things, but on the other hand, he wanted to talk to you every day. I'm an extreme extrovert, and Bob is an extreme extrovert. That is not necessarily a marriage made in heaven. So, I remember that first semester, when you're dumb and excited, I'd come in and say stupid things, and Bob would just tell me, to paraphrase, “You're an idiot.” And I persisted. I did not care. Every day, I'd bring in a piece of paper, a figure. It was exciting.
So, for graduate students, I was a fairly early riser. So, I would be in there first meeting of the day for Bob. I didn't realize that turned out to be useful because you actually got in the door pretty easily. And then that became sort of a routine between the two of us. And if I didn't show up for some reason, he'd come and say, “Is everything OK? What's going on?” Bob would always come and say, “Any breakthroughs?” And this was my way to get out in front of that and make sure I got to control the narrative, I guess. And so, every day, we'd talk about what was going on. But again, as thesis supervisors should be, he knew what I was doing, but he was hands-off enough to make sure I learned, and made mistakes, and did all that. But he knew exactly what I was doing.
And he was a very proud thesis supervisor. One of the things you resented as a PhD student is, he gave all the talks you wanted to give. But as I got older, I realized, he gave talks I would've never been allowed to give. And he got out, and told, and sold my work. And then, when I got opportunities, I got to give talks. But that was an interesting realization, going, “No, this is good for me.” And I figured it out pretty quickly. But the fact that he was so excited about the work that you were doing and telling everyone about it was very useful for your career.
Is Bill Press around at this point? Are you interacting with him?
I don't get a chance to interact with him much now. I saw him when he was at Los Alamos. But I haven't seen Bill for at least ten years.
I'm talking about during graduate school.
Oh, well, Bill had the corner office. Bill was one of the legends of the CFA at the time. I had numerical recipes in C. So, you could go down and ask him questions. Bill is an omnipresent part of the CFA. So, I interacted with him occasionally at this point. But he was not working with me, per se. He worked with Adam. And so, Adam's interactions with Bill were much stronger than mine. But he was, as I said, always there. So, I had a reasonable relationship with him, although quite secondary when I was there.
Was Adam Riess on the scene when you were in graduate school? Or you did not overlap?
No, Adam started in my third year. So, I was sort of his big brother academically, so to speak.
Did you connect right away? Did you recognize immediately that there would be a long-term collaboration?
Well, we connected because I was his academic big brother. And Adam will tell you, hopefully, that he was really flailing for the first six months. I was trying to help him. So, I didn't really think of it in terms of long-term collaboration at all. But to my mind, it was my job to sit and help out, do as much as I could to help out his learning and his thesis development.
Was there anything relevant in the world of theory, cosmology, astrophysics that exerted an influence on your thesis research?
Well, the theory coming out of Stan Woosley's group and Ken'ichi Nomoto's group was particularly strong. Dave Arnett did some nice little analytic models I was trying to figure out how to use on supernovae. So, the whole theory of supernovae really blossomed in the 80s and early 90s. Willie Benz was working at CFA on neutrino-driven explosion models for supernovae, trying to make them explode. That was something that developed when I was in graduate school. There was lots of stuff going on, huge amounts. And then, on the cosmology side, the cold dark matter model was omnipresent, and one of the motivations of going and doing, of course, the High Redshift Supernova Search, in the end, was trying to see, “On small scales, we keep on getting omega matter equal .2. What happens if we do it on the largest scale? Let's measure the deceleration of the universe. Is omega matter 1 or .2?”
So, that was the underpinning bits of the cold dark matter model at the time. One of the interesting things that occurred is, Sean Carroll, my PhD officemate, was doing annual reviews of astronomy and astrophysics on the cosmological constant while I was in the office, and I was making fun of him. Because I'm like, “Why are you doing this? This is such a waste of time.” And he spent a lot of time on this. And that would've come out in ‘92, I think. But while he was working on it, I saw it emerge, and I knew what was in there, so I knew what the cosmological constant did, and I also knew it was an absolutely crazy thing to worry about. So, to me, it was a clear example of theorists just wasting time.
Were you aware at all of what Saul Perlmutter was doing at this point?
Yeah, I knew what he was doing on a few fronts. So, there was the Berkeley automated supernova search. And so, Saul was involved in that. And I had met him first there, and I first worked with him trying to get data for one of the supernovae I was studying. I think 1986I, from memory. And that was in my thesis. And then, they started working on their high redshift supernova search. I was concerned, based on the conversations I'd had with Mario Hamuy and Nick Suntzeff whether or not you could even use the type Ia supernovae's re-sensible distance indicators on all these things.
But most of my interactions were with Carl Pennypacker at this time. Carl would call you up out of the blue, and I remember when I had worked on 1992am, I had to do K corrections, and Carl needed K corrections done for a paper. So, he literally called me up in the middle of the night and said, “I need you to do K corrections for type Ia supernovae.” So, I did it, but I missed out a factor of (1+z). But anyway, I did it in the middle of the night. Oh, well. And then, Carl got all huffy about it. I'm like, “Hey, you want me to do something in six hours that I've never done before? Guess what, I make mistakes.”
Who was on your thesis committee besides Bob?
I had Bob, Ramesh Narayan, John Huchra, Gary Wegner from Dartmouth.
Outside reader is standard?
Anything memorable from the oral defense?
Well, the first one was the good one. So, I had my prelim, and Bob kept on answering the questions. And I'm like, “Bob, I know the answer to this. Shut up.” And then, Ramesh asked a hard question.
What was the question?
“What type of distance is an expanding photosphere method distance? Is it an angular size distance, is it a parallax distance?” And that's just telling you how many 1 + Zs and stuff there are. And Bob just goes quiet. I look at him in the middle of the thing and say, “Oh, yeah, now you're quiet.” And everyone stares, and he's sheepish because he knows he doesn't know the answer as well. So, I sit there, and I'm like, “I think it's a parallax distance.” And Ramesh says, “I think you're right, but I don't think you know why you're right. Get up on the board and show me.” So, Ramesh was always right. And then, in my thesis defense, I just went on really long and ground them in. And they all got kind of frustrated with me. They were like, “Will you shut up and let us get on with the questions?” And Ramesh, again, asked the stingingly hard question. It was very philosophical, about measurability, and what does it really mean to measure the Hubble constant? It was good.
After you defended, what opportunities did you have? What post-docs were compelling to you?
Well, my wife was finishing up her PhD in economics about three weeks before I finished mine. So, it was a real fun household, as you can imagine. August of ‘93. So, we had applied, in 1992, for jobs around the world. And if you look at the number of job advertisements, 1992 was the worst year. And I literally applied to every job where my wife could get a job. And I ended up getting a job at the CFA, the CFA Fellowship, and one at the Carnegie, Carnegie Fellowship. If you really want to know, other than the Hubble, the best two jobs I applied for. I applied for 35 other jobs that I didn't get. So, Jenny, unfortunately, got a job in DC, a really good job. And I was the alternate at Carnegie Washington under Vera Rubin. And I knew Vera, and I literally begged to get in there. And finally, Vera said, "Brian, you didn't get the job. You're just going to have to accept that." Vera was very frustrated with me because I tried so hard to get that job at Carnegie, Washington DC.
And Jenny got a job in Australia as well—I didn’t. So, we ended up staying in Boston, but the deal was, I would keep applying for jobs where we could both get a job together. Jenny did get a teaching job at Wellesley College in Boston. We decided to start a family at the time. But the deal was, basically, I would get a job within a couple years, or we would follow her. Because I could tell you, the prospects for someone with a PhD in economics from Harvard are a lot better than the prospects of an astronomer. It's hard to get a job in astronomy. Was then, still is.
When does Nick Suntzeff enter the scene?
Nick enters the scene back in 1991. So, I met Mario Hamuy in 1990 at a physics school in Les Houches in the Alps of France. And from there, I had met Mark Phillips, who had come down as working on the Hubble program on 87A called SINS at Harvard. And we agreed that I would go down to Chile and spend a couple months there in 1991. So, I spent a couple months in Chile in 1991, working on my thesis, and I got to know Nick very, very well at that time. So, we always did a lot of stuff together from there on afterwards.
And what was the exact moment where this partnership became High-Z?
So, in 1994, I'd finished my PhD, I was thinking of things to do, and I was trying to do nucleosynthetic production in type II supernovae. That was what I was working on. It was a very interesting problem to me, not so much to anyone else. It's all the thing now, or it was, but at the time, I was the only one on the planet who seemed to be interested in it, along with Stan Woosley and Ken Nomoto. But I was working on that. And in 1994, Mario Hamuy came down and showed us his first data of his Calan Tololo search done with Nick, and Mark, and Jose, and others. And wow, the ability to measure distances was remarkable. It was amazing.
So, it was the ability itself, not the data, that was most compelling to you?
Well, the data was absolutely brilliant. And it was only with that quality of data you could realize just how good these were going to be. Crap data, you have no idea what's going on. This was great data. Often, when you get better data, you can't do things as well because actually, everything was spurious correlations before. This was the opposite. Good data, really good ability to measure distances. But they're not all the same, you have to standardize them. So, I saw that, and then literally, three weeks later, Bob's group had time on the MMT, and Saul Perlmutter called us and was trying to get a spectrum of a supernova, which ended up being 1994G, from memory.
And we had tried to take spectra of Saul’s objects many times in the past, and nothing had ever emerged. Nothing. Not a paper, not an astronomical telegram, never been able to even see it on the image thing. But we did it again because, "Wouldn't it be cool?" And I was in Boston. Adam and Bob, I think, were out, and it came in, and Pete Challis reduced the spectrum, and I came in the morning, and they really did have a spectrum. And you could see it was a type Ia supernova at a red shift of .37.
Which tells you what?
Well, it tells you they have discovered a high red shift supernova, finally. I had always been worried when I had talked to Saul in the past that, A, they couldn't discover them, and B, if they did, what are they going to do with them? Now, Mario had shown, with Nick, Mark, Jose, and company, you could actually do something with them. And then, suddenly, three weeks later, I realized they can actually discover them.
If we could just go back three weeks because it's so formative to the story, can you convey exactly what great data looks like from your vantage point? What jumps off the page to you?
You do a Hubble diagram that has almost no scatter, it's a straight line. Because the universe actually has very little scatter. And when you plot these supernovae, instead of being all over the place, it's just a straight line, like nothing you've ever seen in astronomy before. And when you see that, you're like, “Wow. OK. That's good.” It was two and a half times better than anything we had ever seen before. And the ability to do measurement goes as the square of the scatter. So, two and a half squared is, like, six times more powerful than anything you've ever had before. So, Saul clearly had discovered them. And then, we were working with Saul's team about doing an Astronomical Telegram on it.
And Bob was back by this time. And Saul’s group—they're physicists. They don't want to play. “No, no, this is proprietary data.” And we're like, “No, this is our data we have taken on your behalf, and we publish it. We're open source.” So, there was a big smash-up there that ultimately caused us to be unreconcilable. That's why I'm telling you this. They did not want to publish it. We did. We're talking about how we might collaborate, and collaboration would be Saul and his group in charge, and we would do what they say. And we had very strong views about dust, needing to get color, and all this stuff. So, there was just scientific disagreement on many fronts. So eventually, that Astronomical Telegram was published. We realized they had been sitting on three other objects at the time. Maybe four or five more. But within a very short period of time, I realized, game on. You could make this measurement some way.
And it was clear we were not going to be able to work with Saul and team under terms that were acceptable to us. And I said to Bob, “I think we need to think about doing this ourselves.” And Bob and I were having that struggle between me finishing my PhD and what to do next. I was on my way down to Chile to do a different type of project. I knew I was on my way to Australia at this point. And I talked in detail on my Chilean trip with Nick Suntzeff about how we might do a project together out of Chile because I thought about all the things that Saul was doing wrong. And Saul had done a lot of things right as well, so let's not get that wrong. I knew what he had done right, I knew what I felt he had done wrong, and I said, “Let's do it ourselves.” And Nick and I sort of set up the team on that trip down there.
As the tone shifted from collaboration to competition with Saul's team, did you recognize in real time that, ultimately, this would be good for the science?
Well, to be clear, it was competition, but it was because we genuinely thought they were doing it wrong. And so, I knew it was going to be good for the science because I wanted to do the project right. Now, the competition ended up being good on other fronts, but the motivation was to do the work right. If we had felt Saul and team had been doing everything, listening to us, and doing things exactly the way we thought it should be done, or been open to a collaboration to do things, I don't think we would've competed. But the reality is, they were a different team, different constructs of how they worked, coming from a physics background, and it was just oil and water. It just wasn't going to work.
Now, from Adam's six months of flailing, when does he come into his own and become really a fundamental part of the team?
Well, Adam flailed on his PhD at the very beginning, just like I did, but then in 1994, in his second year, he starts really making traction on his distance-measuring methods. And so, he's going full guns by the middle of ‘94. We set up the team in ‘94, and we agree at the end of ‘94 to bring Bob and his team, including Adam, on board. As an aside, it doesn't have Alex Filippenko on it either because I didn't feel it was appropriate for us to poach Alex from Saul. Alex did ask to join our team straight up, and I refused. That turned out to be stupid for multiple reasons. But if I'm honest, the thing that broke the back in 1995 for Alex to join is Keck was suddenly working and was going to just destroy us. We couldn't compete.
What do you mean suddenly working? What clicked at Keck?
In 1994, the spectra that we got of 94G was better than what Keck could deliver. 1995, Keck was ten times better than the next best telescope on the planet.
So, what changed over that year?
They got it working well. They got the mirrors phased up; they got the right spectrographs on it.
So, these were instrumentation improvements.
Keck had just been launched in ‘94. And it takes a little while after first light to get a telescope to work well. And there were questions. Remember, it was novel technology. Was it ever going to work right? Keck had a pretty rough first year. People forget about that. It was not outcompeting things. And then, suddenly, they got it right, and it suddenly went from being, “Eh,” to, “Oh my God, it's so much better than anything else. We're all dead.” So that changed in ‘95.
And what were the considerations for you being named leader of HZT? You're relatively junior at this point. Why not Bob?
Well, because I was the one who set up the program. So, it was my idea with Nick. I was writing all the software, writing the proposals with Nick. I was organizing things. And astronomy's not that hierarchical. So, I was the leader because I was the person doing the things that needed to be done. And the reality is that, as a young post-doc, which I was, I'm not going to go and suddenly be subservient to someone else at that critical time. If I'd walked at that time, early on, there was no High-Z team. Because all the software, the analysis, all that stuff was me at that point. Now, we built onto it in the years subsequent, and we needed the team. But in the early days, in terms of the guts of what made it work, it was me.
Now, what was the sequencing on the decision to move to Australia? Did you take the leadership role knowing that you were going to Australia? Or that came afterwards?
No, I had the leadership role knowing I was going to Australia.
Without any concern that being on the other side of the planet would be problematic?
Well, we worked in the middle of the night everywhere. The guys in Chile are in Chile, I'm in Australia. The Chileans are the key telescope area, the key collaborators. So, no concerns. You're on the other side of the planet from who you work with.
There's no Zoom back then though.
There's no Zoom, but the point is that the really important thing was for me and Chile to be able to talk, me and Hawaii to be able to talk, that the center of mass of the project is not in the United States. In those early days, it was in the Southern Hemisphere.
And what's your affiliation? You go to ANU right away?
Faculty appointment? Or this is a second post-doc?
It's a post-doc. It was called a level A post-doc. It's a post-doc that's not tied to a project, so it's like a fellowship.
And it's with MSSO?
It's with MSSSO.
And do you have other responsibilities besides High-Z at this point?
Not really. I started teaching because I enjoy teaching. But I do that out of the goodness of my heart. But no, it's a pure research position.
Does the research have fits and starts in terms of what's exciting? Or is it getting exciting in sort of one trajectory? It's just more and more exciting?
It is full-on just trying to make it work. It's not like, “Oh, this is happening.” It's just like, “How do I make this work?” Trying to find high red shift supernovae, and then get the follow-up observations. Doing the red shift calculations, the analysis calculations, and all that stuff. So, it is absolutely full-on. And in ‘96, we start having to analyze the data. The problem of me being a one-man band has crept in because the reality is, it's way bigger than I can do on my own. I realize this probably at the end of ‘95. My team's already realized it. And so, we start bringing extra people in. And so, that's the expanding of who's involved, so Saurabh Jha, Peter Garnavich from Bob's team, a group from the University of Washington, Mario and Jose down in Chile. So absolutely. It's just full-on trying to get it done. So, it's not like a little tide you are against. It's a tsunami that you're just trying to swim up against.
And at what point do you recognize that the accepted wisdom, the models in astronomy about the deceleration of the universe, is not true?
Well, the first indication we got was supernova 1995K, our first supernova, red shift .48, most distant supernova at the time, really good light curve, marginal spectrum, but we could tell what it was, and the q0 was too low. It had a q0 of -.65. q0 is the deceleration parameter—negative means acceleration. But it was a single object. And it was embarrassing, quite frankly. “Oh my God, what's going on with this?” It was kind of blue, so it didn't seem like it had much dust. But it's one object. I had a head of a TAC when we put that data as the single object. This was the Kitt Peak TAC, and Saul had seven objects showing that omega matter was one. And we had one object showing that omega matter was minus a half.
Now, you know this in real time? Or you're saying this retrospectively? You're aware of what Saul's doing?
We didn't get any of the time at Kitt Peak. Saul got all the time at Kitt Peak. And I was kind of mad. And one of the members of the TAC said, “Brian, what are you guys doing? Saul's got all these objects. You have one. Your object's clearly wrong. How can we give you the time?” Just to show you where life was. So, we got that number, and so we're expecting it to go away, quite frankly. At the end of ‘97, around November, Adam has this brilliant focus, is just churning away objects relentlessly. I've just had my second child at this point, and Adam understands what that means now, but probably didn't at the time. And he does the first pass analysis. And then, he sends me this encapsulated post-script figure by email, which we UU encode, so you can digitize it, compress it, and then UU encode it, so it gets through the mail system in a finite amount of time. That's how we did things back then. And I look at the data, and it's clearly all negative q0. They're all in the 95K part of the diagram. And I think I wrote back to him something like, “Houston, we have a problem.” As in, “Oh, jeez. What are we doing? Literally, what are we doing?” So, we get on the phone and talk.
Meaning there's a mistake, something screwed up somewhere. That's the concern?
Yeah, absolutely. So, we get on the phone and say, “OK, let's go through and figure out each one of these objects.” And so, we essentially had a few of us go through. I actually went through some of the data, then we realized we had to bring other people in. But we sort of picked through the data bit by bit. And there were little changes and things. At this time, we were trying to figure out how to analyze the data because the ways you would normally analyze the data are challenging. You need to use a Bayesian framework. Well, guess what? No one really was doing those back then. And this is where Bill Press came in and helped Adam, and then Adam helped me. Once it's explained, I'm like, “I get it. It's not too bad.” But that was something we had to learn how to do in ‘97. Because at the beginning of ‘97, this was still a problem. How do we deal with the fact that there are parts of the parameter space that are no-go zones, negative matter, and all these things?
So, as we're analyzing the data and trying to make sure, Adam's getting more and more sophisticated at analyzing the data within a Bayesian framework. I'm sitting there looking for systematic errors, where we screwed up. But we had sort of gone through, in the period of six weeks, at the end of ‘97, every possible test we could. And we ended up within a couple percent of where Adam was on the first cut of the analysis. In the meantime, I had to learn how to do this Bayesian analysis, and I have written my own code. I was a better computer coder back then than Adam. Adam is taking days for his to run, and mine's running in seconds. And I'm like, “What is going on, Adam?” I'm good, but I'm not that good. So, we figured out a few things that Adam was doing needlessly, making the problem harder than it was. But we got there. And then, as I said, on the 8th of January, Australia time, just before the AAS meeting, I wrote Adam a letter and said, “Hello, lambda.” We had done every test. We could not make it Lambda, go away. It is there. And basically said, “We need to tell the team.”
And Peter Garnavich was giving a talk that day. And we told Peter what was going on. I said, “You cannot tell anyone about this. You're going to go through and show your most recent data but know that is what's coming. And let's think about that.” And then, at that meeting in 1998, Saul was making a presentation. And I had not seen his Nature paper with the single HST object that was not quite in agreement with his previous work. So, I still think he's getting omega matter equals 1. We're definitely getting a cosmological constant. I'm pretty worried about this, as you might imagine. And then, in that 1998 AAS, Saul shows his 40 objects but doesn't say cosmological constant. But we could see where they are in the diagram, which is where our stuff is as well. Because he hasn't corrected for reddening and stuff.
Well, we have. We've already done all that. And at that point, you're like, "Oh, crap. He's got the same answer as we do. Here, I thought we were going to have a fight because he's got a different answer than we do." I suddenly realize he's got the same answer as us. He has no idea that we've already fully analyzed our bit, and we have better data than he has, but we don't have as many objects as him. And so, that created quite a stir in that second week of January.
Now, this surprise with Saul's findings is because you're assuming that his team never did course correct from the beginning?
Well, because I haven't seen the data. So I've got a paper from them in the middle of ‘97 that says omega matter is .88. And I've got our data, which clearly shows a q0 -.6. So, his is a q0 of +.45. And you have to remember, Adam is at Berkeley at this time. And he may be having things from that team that are tipping him off. I don't know. I don't have any of that. I think they're still getting a very positive q0. So that striptease of the future that Saul did was like, “Oh my God, what is going on? OK. Wow, we really need to get our act together now because he's got the same answer as we do.” And then, at this point, you get into this irrationality of being scooped. And this is the place where competition is not good. And I'm prepared to call this out. We had already gotten that answer. They clearly were getting that answer. We got there at the same time.
But before you're concerned about being scooped, the fact that there's multiple independent verification, is that what's giving you the confidence that you're right? Or are you right no matter what Saul found?
We were going to publish no matter what Saul published. We had to publish because we had done everything we could. When we went out to the team, there was a lot of worry about whether we were ready to do this. I'm like, “Well, Adam and I have done everything. Now, as a team, we're going to have to do everything. But we will publish, even if we dislike the answer. We have to.” So, absolutely, we were destined to do that. Realizing that Saul more or less had the same answer as us now just made the desire to do that quicker very much stronger.
Given the magnitude of the findings, what kind of discussion was there about the publication, where this would appear?
Well, Alex Filippenko wanted to put it into Nature. And I said, “Over my dead body. We need to have everything available. We're not going to be stuck into writing Nature's style in 1,300 words for something like this. We need to have a place where we can get everything out there so it can be looked at and scrutinized. And we want to have a really good referee who's not going to leak the information.” So, we ended up choosing AJ over APJ because we did not have the confidence in APJ at the time to do that. So, I think AJ was pretty happy to have the paper, but it was an unusual place to put it. But I was definitely not going to put it in Nature. It was too important a result, in my opinion, to put in Nature.
Did you know who the referee was?
I think it may have been David Branch, but I'm not sure.
Was the paper written by committee? Or was there a lead author with other editorial interventions?
No, we definitely had lead authors. So, Adam was the lead author, and that had been decided in 1996, who was going to be the lead author of which paper. So, I wrote, “Here's the whole program, 1995K.” Just took us a long time to get it out because we were too busy, so they all kind of came out at the same time. The second paper written by Peter Garnavich, I thought was going to be the big paper. Because even with five objects, I knew we were going to be able to tell omega matter low or omega matter high. Omega matter low in that paper, but up against what Saul's team had done. And then, Adam Riess got the third paper, which I thought would be a better refinement of the measurement. So, I thought Peter Garnavich was the one who got the really good paper out of it all. But I didn't know the universe was going to be accelerating. So, Adam was the lead author, and yes, we all helped him a lot. But it's clearly Adam's paper.
What discussions were there within the team about referencing Saul’s work or not?
Well, certainly, we referenced everything that was published. A sneak tease at an AAS, rather hard to reference. So, we thought about what we might do there. So, to my mind, there was no easy way to reference that. They wanted us to reference a poster, I think, that made no claim. And can I say, I got the postscript file from and was able to extract all their light curves from, and that really pissed them off. Because I was just trying to figure out what was going on a year later around rise times. But that's another story. Oh, they were mad at me on that one.
But the reality is, there was not much for us to reference because the poster itself did not talk about anything. And indeed, even the talk, it was like, “Oh, they're kind of pointing in a different direction.” That was what was said. It was hard to reference. But the reason I'm prepared to say it like I'm telling you is, they were simultaneous. They really were. And we need to give credit to simultaneity rather than, “We got there first.” I'm sorry, the two experiments needed each other. We got there together. Really important for people to know that.
You knew, of course, the paper was going to make a big splash. What surprised you about the reception, and what did you see coming?
Well, this was the Donald Rumsfeld era. There were known knowns and known unknowns. And I knew we had the known unknowns covered. But I was really worried about the unknown unknowns. And you worry about something coming out and biting us. So, I figured, “We're going to go out, there's going to be huge skepticism, as there should be, and I expect to have a very long journey trying to convince people that either this is right, that we haven't made a mistake, or be waiting for something to emerge.” That was something we had not thought about. And I was pretty sure it wouldn't just be us, it would be the whole community that would not have thought about it. I was pretty confident that within the known unknowns, we had covered ourselves pretty well.
So, I was surprised by the likes of Mike Turner and the theoretical community just getting out and saying, “It's the panacea. This is everything. It's got to be right.” That surprised me. So, there was a much more positive reception to it early on than I was expecting. Much more. I remained really concerned about the unknown unknown popping up and knocking it away. But I guess the other thing is, this is when I realized I was in Australia. So, the discovery was run across Australia as a major discovery, did not mention that I existed, was entirely a US discovery. And I had agreed to do the right thing. We agreed on authorship order and stuff. And I said, “We're going to do it this way because it's the right way to do it.”
And on the 26th of February, when the Australian Press ran our story, it is largely reported that it was a US discovery with not even a mention of my involvement—that, of course, you lead the team, and it's been completely the US feeding on it, it causes you to feel a little low, can I say? But my team, Adam, Nick, Bob, everyone has always ensured that we did our best to collectively give ourselves credit. And it's hard. Adam and I clearly have gotten way more credit than we deserve. But my trust in the team was the right thing to do. I'm very glad I did it. But I did have doubts there on the 26th of February.
Do you have a specific memory of encountering the term dark energy and your reaction to it?
Yes, because dark energy was first used by Mike Turner at a conference at ANU in the second half of 1998. And Mike uses these hand-drawn transparencies in the pre-PowerPoint days. I was already using PowerPoint in 1998, but I was, like, the first. Had to bring machines with me to make it work. Anyways, Mike would do these amazing hand-drawn things. And he had dark energy up there. And that was the first place it was ever used. Someone else used it somewhere else, but Mike Turner's use of it, which was, again, I think, uniquely done by him, that was the place it was done. So, I do remember it. And I was thinking, “Whoa, that's kind of a kludgy name.” I have to admit I didn't like it very well, if you really want to know.
What would've been better if anyone bothered to ask you?
Let's just call it the cosmological constant. And it may not be the cosmological constant, but it more or less is. I'm happy with vacuum energy.
Now, on the administrative side, are you finally a professor at this point? Have you joined the faculty?
Oh, no, I'm still a post-doc. So, I come to Australia with a three-year position. In 1997, two years into my position, there is a level B, a five-year, second-stage post-doc. So, the system in Australia is different than the US. So, you have a level A, which is the first thing right out of PhD, typically three-year positions. Often, research only, no teaching. Level B, often some teaching, but mainly research in my case. But they're five-year fixed.
They're not a tenured position. Then, you go to level C, which is normally like an assistant professor continuing position. So, we typically don't use tenure track here. As an aside, I am bringing tenure-track positions to ANU because I think they are important to provide some security earlier in people’s careers. So, A, B, C, D, and E with C, D, and E normally being tenured. So, in 1997, in February, I come back from an observing run. Bob tells me he has written me my letter for Caltech for an assistant professorship position there, which was great, except I had not applied to Caltech at that point. Because I wasn't sure about going there.
There's still a two-body problem to deal with.
Exactly. And Caltech is super intense. And I end up putting an application in, and literally, a week later, I hop on a plane and visit. So, I go there, I have applied for this job at Mount Stromlo, the five-year, fixed-term position. I am told that while I was a strong candidate and appointable, I had finished fourth in the position. So, there were three people in front of me. I go to Caltech, I interview, and at the end of a very grueling three days—where I had Wal Sargent attack me for reasons I still don't know in my colloquium, you can ask Wendy Freedman about that, she was in the front row watching it.
But anyway, it was a really full-on bit. And Chuck Steidel had twins while I was there as well. Or at least his wife did. And at the end, I was talking to Roger Blandford, and I was just like, “I think it would be best if I finished second in this job.” Now, Roger knows I don't have a job. And he literally is like, “You would rather leave astronomy than take this position in Caltech?” And I said, “I think that's where I'm at right now.” Because all I could see was getting divorced if I took that position. So, I came back, kept working, kind of depressed and saying, “Well, I guess I'm going to maybe go teach school or something.” But we're still working very hard on the stuff. And then, the three people in front of me in that job all turned the job down, and I ended up getting the five-year research-continuing position.
So, I started that job on the 1st of January 1998. And then, as I said, we realized the universe was accelerating for sure six or seven days later. So, I am a level B, non-tenured person in 1998. And I got a continuing position offered to me in 2002. But I ended up not taking it because I got a fellowship, and then I got another fellowship, and then it became a problem because I got a third fellowship. And that required me to have an underlying professorial position. This is in 2010. And I didn't have anything, which caused a bit of a ruction. They had to get me a professor position at the university very quickly. But it turned out they'd figured out how to do that.
So, the team discovers that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. What is the immediate follow-on research that needs to happen at that point?
So, a whole bunch of interesting things happen. You'll see some really interesting papers by Peter Garnavich and Saurabh Jha around, “Is it the cosmological constant?” So, quantify the acceleration, and we show with the cosmic microwave background in a really good paper written by Peter Garnavich as an author. And I will say, I wanted to write that paper. But A, I was busy, and B, I thought it was good to share the love around a little bit. And so, Peter wrote this amazing paper, Saurabh Jha very heavily involved in it, Adam and I also involved with the rest of the team, quantifying, “Is it the cosmological constant?” That's where we used the W parameter. We called it as alpha because we had not yet discovered there was something called W at this point in the physics literature, but we kind of figured it out ourselves, our own version of it. Then, really understanding, “Is there any way evolution and dust could be biting us?” And getting more data because our measurement's still only four sigma. Saul's measurement, four sigma. Together, they sort of make just under a five-sigma measurement. So, getting more data; it was really important to do that well and refine the measurement.
When does Chris Stubbs enter the scene?
Chris Stubbs enters in 1995. He's working on the MACHO experiment. And he visits Stromlo because he came there a lot. And I could see we needed some more grunt to get things done. Having someone who might be able to help us on the instrumentation side, and Craig Hogan, a theorist who taught me at Arizona, came on board because I thought it was important that we had some theorists on board. So, we had him join along with John Tonry and Alex Filippenko in 1995.
When does the Nobel Prize buzz really start?
Well, tough question. I never took it very seriously, so that's my problem. Let me tell you where I realized we were right. This wasn't going to go away. In 2000, two experiments measured the first acoustic peak of the cosmic microwave background. And that was in, I think, May of 2000. And once you had that measurement definitive, which was omega total is one, that basically said the universe is flat—which made it almost impossible to reconcile our measurement with anything other than a Cosmological Constant, then our measurements went from sort of being four-and-a-bit sigma to, like, seven sigma. And I remember seeing that. Because the only way was to have a cosmological constant to make it all work out. And I remember thinking, “I'll be damned, we're right.” So that was in 2000, when I realized there was just no way this was going to go away. So, that was an important day in the whole evolution. In terms of Nobel Prizes, it was clearly on some people's minds starting in 2002, 2003. I was asked a little bit about it in 2007 by someone who had reason to ask about it, as I realize now how things worked. I didn't really realize what was going on at the time. But some people were onto it pretty quickly. As I said, to me, it was, “How are you going to get a Nobel Prize for a measurement that we just are never going to understand?” Normally, Nobel Prizes are for things you understand. We made a measurement that we don't understand. So, I thought we were just never going to get a Nobel Prize. That was my view.
Why can you never understand it?
Because what is the cosmological constant, really? Why is it there? It's a very abstract thing. So, we have a measurement, the universe is accelerating, but we don't have a satisfactory explanation, as a cosmological constant in its current form just doesn't make any sense, doesn't have any reason for being there. I guess you could consider it like discovering an exotic particle that you didn't know was there, and it's just there, part of the buildup. But to me, it felt more abstract than that. I didn't go into astronomy to win the Nobel Prize. And so, the fact that I didn't think we were ever going to win a Nobel Prize didn't bother me to be honest.
Did you see winning the Shaw Prize as sort of coming attractions?
No, I thought winning the Shaw Prize was going to be the highlight of my life. It's the big astronomy prize. The Gruber Prize of Cosmology was something I was hoping we might eventually win as a team. And we did win it as a team, which was great. But I thought the Shaw Prize was going to be the biggest thing of my life.
And then, two years later, being elected a fellow of both the American and Australian National Academy of Science, was that equally meaningful? Did you feel fully ensconced as an adopted Australian at this point?
I certainly felt pretty Australian by that time. I've lived here half my life now. So yeah, I was already pretty much a fixture. And being elected to the academy, I was very young, so it was a real privilege. And I guess I figured it was probably going to happen sometime. But again, why be in a hurry?
And by the end of this, are you taking on graduate students?
I took on a graduate student as a level A, believe it or not. So, I had my first graduate student starting with me in 1996, I think. Lisa Germany. So, I had already had graduate students.
And this is a regular professor's life at this point?
Yeah, it was pretty much a regular professor's life. Because I started teaching as a post-doc, and it's not very hierarchical here. You just kind of were part of the academic staff at ANU, just rising through that A, B, C, D, whatever bit.
But you're not necessarily on a trajectory that would lead to where you are now. That wasn't obvious at that time.
No, quite the opposite. If you would've said, “You're going to become the president of the university,” I would've looked at you and said, “Why would I ever do that to myself?”
Well, for all of my American Nobelist interviewees, the story's always that they get the call from Stockholm at 4 or 5 in the morning. What time of day was it when you got the call?
So, you were awake.
I was having a late dinner. My wife was cooking a green curry, which I was stirring. We had the two kids, who would've been 14 and 16 at the time. So, kind of came out of the blue on the 4th of October, 8:39 pm.
And you were pretty good in previous years to not think, “Is this the night that I get the call?” You were good about keeping that out of your mind?
Well, yeah, I was good in that I just didn't have it in my mind. The year before, I had a journalist call me up and say, “If they call you, let me know.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? Come on, people.” So, on this particular day, my graduate student at the time, Brad Tucker, gave me his wedding invitation, which was for the 10th of December. And he said, “When they call you tonight, tell them you're busy.” So, that is what he told me the day I got the call. And I opened up the thing like, “Oh, you're getting married. This is really exciting.” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘If they call you tonight’?” And he's like, “Don't you know today is the day that the Nobel Prize is announced?” I said, “Oh, no, I actually did not know that.”
And then, he said, “And you do realize that the 10th of December, the day our wedding is, is the day of the Nobel Prize ceremony?” And I said, “I really didn't know that either.” So, I didn't know any of this stuff. And so, when I got the call that night, it was a young Swedish woman. We have lots of Swedish students over here. And so, I literally think it's a practical joke. I thought it was Brad doing a practical joke on me. And she said, “Is this Brian Schmidt?” I said, “This is Brian Schmidt.” “Are you sure? This is a very important call from Sweden.” And I said, “I'm sure that it is.” Because I literally thought it was a joke.
Now, the other story in the United States is, within 15 minutes, the news vans are on the front yard. Is that the case for you as well?
It took them a little longer than that, but actually, that did happen. The one thing they asked me is, they couldn't get a hold of Saul Perlmutter, and they were like, “Do you have his phone number?” And I'm like, “Yeah, let me look.” So, I had to give them Saul Perlmutter's phone number. So, ABC news said, “We are in a van, heading your direction, but we have no idea where you actually live.” So, they did a live broadcast that night from my house.
Now, maybe the Shaw Prize gave you a little bit of opportunity to reflect on the inherent problem of limiting the prize winners to a much smaller number than the number of people who obviously contributed in a fundamental way. But then, of course, the Nobel Prize, the platform, the award, the recognition, it's a quantum leap above anything else. What were your immediate thoughts about the fact that this was problematic or that people might get hurt? Did this bother you? Was it something that you just put out of your mind because you had no control over it? How did you deal with those things?
Well, the first thing I did is, my wife, who's taking over stirring as I'm trying to digest what's going on, is looking at me and trying to figure out what's going on because she knows something is happening. And so, they hang up, and say they are going to call me in a few minutes and go live to the world about four minutes later. And in this brief moment before the world knows when I hung up, I looked at her and said, “I am so sorry.” Because I know this is going to completely disrupt her life. The first question I asked was, “Who else won it?” Because my first thing is, “My God, this could be ugly depending on who got it.” So, the configuration they did, in my opinion, was the best they could do with three people. I think it was the appropriate configuration with three people. But I am worried. I wrote literally that night to every member of the High-Z team up to, like, two in the morning, thanking them, trying to include them as best they can, knowing there's not much you can do. There's no way to include someone when they're not included in this.
So then, Adam and I had a chat, and I said, “We need to bring Saul on this,” because we know his team members as well now. So, we're pretty chummy by 2011. We've gotten past our competition thing, and we're pretty chummy. So, we had a good chat about what we would and would not do to try to include our team members. So, we did the best job we could. We agreed that we would bring every team member, all expenses paid from our prize money, to Stockholm who wanted to come. And that just absolutely had to be done from my perspective. So, we had those chats. But there are limits to what you can do.
It had to be done on an interpersonal level, or it had to be done because they actually contributed to it? In other words, it wasn't just about making people feel good, you wanted to convey that this prize really was something that everybody needed to feel that they shared in?
Yeah, both. It's a sense of fairness. And it is trying to do the right thing, making sure that people get as much as they can out of being part of this, knowing that it's an accolade that is just decided, and you're either in, or you're out. But it is a sense of fairness, absolutely.
What did you want to convey in your Nobel lecture, given that you have this unparalleled platform? And did you start thinking about what would come next in terms of using that voice for things that have nothing to do with astronomy?
So, the Nobel lecture itself, I felt, was a chance just to talk to the world about what we discovered. So, we agreed that rather than three of us doing three independent lectures, we would break it up into three lectures of the whole story, so that the audience who were there that day got the best possible understanding. So, the Nobel lecture itself was for the audience of the day to understand what we had done. So, no higher bits than that. The Nobel Prize is about science, so we tried to put the science there out in front. Thinking about doing things on a bigger platform, no, I was keen to make sure that I had a chance to highlight science and make sure people understand why science is good.
And so, you get a chance to talk about science, but really, in a very positive science communications style. The political overlays started happening a couple years later in Australia, not so much internationally, where we had some funding decisions that were going to dismantle Australian astronomy. So, I became involved in those, and it's good to learn how that side of the ledger sheet works. So, I did a bit on that. And I don't aim to be too political all the time. I know I'm pretty high-profile in the Lindau Declaration and this declaration we've just made on global sustainability. But those are small parts of my time. But important parts, where we feel, as a group of Nobel Laureates, we need to have a unifying message for the global good. So, I'm not keen to do that on every drop of the hat. But I'm keen to do it in some very important times.
I wonder if you've thought about the ways in which perhaps the Breakthrough Prize is better suited to science for the 21st century, where it's not individuals, it's always teams. They might be small teams, they might be huge teams, but it's never just the individual scientist working alone.
The Gruber Prize, the Breakthrough Prize. So, I do think, in one sense, they've got the right ideas there. I guess what they don't have is the same gravitas as the Nobel Prize. They just don't. It's orders of magnitude less. Let's just call it out, it is. So, that's the challenge. And so, to my mind, it's, how do we convince the Nobel Prize guys to adapt, noting the whole notion of three people is not the way the will was written? I personally would like to see the Nobel Prize adapt to be something that adapts to science. Wouldn't it have been great if we all won the Nobel Prize, and Adam, Saul, and I were the spokespeople? I don't know. It strikes me they could've done something like that as a compromise.
Now, what's your research at this point? In other words, with all of the recognition, responsibility, and political ramifications, are you worried about your research agenda at that point? Or are you already on a trajectory at ANU where you're taking on more and more administrative responsibilities anyway at this point?
So, 2011, I'm still full-on doing the research bit. I've got this SkyMapper telescope doing a giant map of the Southern Hemisphere, which is challenging for all sorts of reasons. The main problem is, when you win a Nobel Prize, you suddenly become a show pony, and you spend 200 days doing events that have nothing to do with your research. I should say I love giving public talks—and it is a privilege to be given such a big stage—but it is relentless. So, it's a big distraction, one could say, or one could say it's a big impost on your time that takes you away from research. Absolutely. And so, after a couple years of that, you have to figure out a way, at least I did, to regain one's sanity and find balance in your life as an academic.
And was that through SkyMapper? Was that your anchor?
No, I've been taken away from SkyMapper. So, SkyMapper was languishing at some level because of all the other things I was having to do. The reason I decided to become vice chancellor of ANU was because I knew I would have to focus all of my energy and attention on it, and it would break the cycle of just being a show pony.
What was your mandate, what were the biggest problems facing you when you came in as vice chancellor?
Well, the main thing was, ANU is Australia's national university. There is nothing like it in the United States. It's quite a unique institution. And the university had slowly drifted to be more and more like every other university in Australia and was losing its unique identity. And so, for me, it was about reestablishing its unique identity, making sure that it focused on the national mandate to have excellence in everything it did and work on issues of national and regional significance. So really, not trying to be bigger and bigger, but rather, a core excellence that could work on issues of import to Australia, even if financially, they didn't make a lot of sense. So, we teach lots of languages in the local region. And we don't do that to make money, let me tell you. But someone's got to do it. We work on commonwealth policy, which doesn't make your rankings go up, but someone's got to do it. So really focusing on being a unique resource.
Given the national ramifications, either formally or informally, who are some of your key partners in the Australian government?
Well, I work with anyone who will work with me. And I'm both their friend and their enemy sometimes, I think, depending on how well we're agreeing at the time. So, there's pretty much no one in Canberra I don't know or work with. My office is six minutes away from parliament house. I have the ability to reach out to pretty much anyone at any time if I need to.
And you engage beyond just the science, obviously. This is all of education.
Not just education, but all policy. So, economic policy, epidemiological policy, energy policy, environment, everything. There's not much that we don't work on.
Australia has very unique challenges with regard to climate change. What have you been able to do in this position, given your interest in climate change?
A number of things. We have a very strong set of researchers working on understanding climate, but also adaptation. We have a big battery unit, a grid integration program. We have a grand challenge to figure out how to bring renewable energy and storage at scale. So, we're part of a 15-gigawatt program up in Northern Australia that is intending to export power to Asia across the strait. Hydrogen storage. Just a whole range of things. As an institution, we've committed to being net zero by 2025, noting that Canberra's one of the first large cities in the world to go totally renewable energy, which we worked on with them, that program, a couple years ago. So, net zero by 2025, and well below zero by 2030. So, we're working on creating the offsets through all sorts of means, where we're going to be removing CO2 from the atmosphere and slowly going backwards, with respect to the carbon we've emitted as an institution over a lifetime.
I wonder if your venture as a grape grower has made climate change closer to home for you than it otherwise might've been.
Oh, you really see it. I'm telling you, you watch how much the climate has changed in the last 21 years since I've planted, and it's quite scary. And if you didn't know, you've got to look out for variability and stuff, but the variability is probably larger over this 30-year period than has ever been recorded in the last several thousand years. But we do understand what's going on. And we know it's going to keep going the same direction. It's not going to suddenly start going the other direction due to orbital effects or whatever on the earth. So, you really see it. This year, we had a big La Niña event, which means it was a cool year. This will be the coolest year probably of my lifetime. There will never be another year as cool as this in my lifetime. And this cool year is about what the average year was like when the grape regions here were formed in 1971.
How does that affect the varietals?
So, pinot noir is the grape of Burgundy traditionally, and it is what we call a relatively cool grape. It doesn't like super warm regions. Canberra is cooler than people think. I can show you frost out on the ground here. We were -5 last night. And I'm up at elevation, so my temperature is almost exactly the same as Burgundy. Probably a little cooler than Burgundy is during summer. And so, it was a cool year this year, so the pinot noir was fine.
Quite frankly, I would’ve liked it to be just a little warmer. But last year was hot. And last year, because of smoke, bush fires all around, there were no grapes grown in Canberra. The whole crop was lost due to smoke. But even if there was some smoke, it was the first year we have had where it was too hot to make a decent pinot noir.
So, the fraction of years that I can make a decent pinot noir is going to drop off. Now, I was looking, and I think I probably have the rest of my life for pinot noir here, but the good years will be the cool years, not the warm ones. But in the future, it will not be pinot noir. I've got some Shiraz and Viognier planted, which is the wine of Côte-Rôtie, so just down from Burgundy. They will be the grapes of the future here. So, last year, if it hadn’t been smoky, it would've been a very good Shiraz year. This year, too cold. Couldn't make Shiraz. And 20 years ago, could never have made Shiraz. So, we're kind of in between climates right now it seems.
It's real. You really see it.
You really see it.
Do you feel like you've kept up your muscle memory in science, that if you harbor any fantasy of stepping down from this role, you can get back to where it all started for you?
Yes, but you're not going to just go in. So, when I finish being vice chancellor—and I do intend to go back and be a scientist—I will need to spend six months getting the headspace and doing things again. I think the really interesting question for me is astronomy going from being small groups—the High Redshift Supernova Team was an unusually large group in 1998. Now, that's a small group. And working in these really large teams—I like 20 people because we're all friends, and we can do stuff together. But in 100-person teams, 500-person teams, I don't find it very interesting, to be honest. So, I'm going to have to think very hard about what I work on. And one of the things as a vice chancellor is, I get to see the whole range. And there are lots of really interesting problems that go across disciplines. And I might spend a fair bit of time working on those types of things, things that bridge the science, the politics, and the sociology, for example. Electricity usage.
It's exciting, you can take on any number of things.
One can, but we'll see. We'll have to just wait and see what happens.
Retrospectively, I'm not sure if you're an anniversary guy, but the 25th anniversary of 1998 is coming up. I wonder if you've reflected on what's been possible or achievable as a result of that discovery and how that discovery itself has shaped or reshaped over time.
Well, I worry about the discovery because I think it's done a lot to transform astronomy. It's moved us to these big physics-style experiments. We have gone and done these huge-sized experiments. We haven't learned much. We've spent a lot of money and effort, but we haven't learned that much. It's moved astronomy from discovery frontier to something else. And it's not just our discovery that did that, but it was certainly a pivotal moment in it. So, it was a really interesting discovery, but the fact that we've made so little progress on it with so much effort over the last 25 years, I feel a little guilty about that to be honest.
But part of it may have been accidental, you weren't necessarily aiming for something big. It was just what the data told you.
Oh, it was completely accidental, and we needed to know it. But the reaction of the community to do the right thing and try to figure it out has been a big change, and one might argue, a distortion of what we do. And my own personal emotional reaction to that is one of a bit of sadness.
I wonder, though, if there's cause for a little bit of optimism that maybe the next big thing that moves the needle is going to be rather similar, not something that aims so big, but another accidental finding that really changes things in a way that nobody saw coming.
I think the really little things that you do have huge potential. Look at the mRNA vaccines. A small group in Germany popped out, probably going to completely change things. Look at the CRISPR stuff and Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. They were pretty small groups. So, I think there are huge things that will emerge from small groups, and I'm just worried that astronomy isn't going to have enough of those small groups to do the big discoveries going forward.
Yeah. Well, hopefully you're wrong.
Yeah, I hope I am.
Brian, it's been a great time having this discussion with you. I'm so glad we were able to do this. Thank you so much.
Thank you. Take care.