Astronomer Bryan Gaensler speaks to Melanie Sheridan about immigration, science in Australia, aliens and his first book, Extreme Cosmos, in this slightly extended version of the article that appeared in print.
Bryan Gaensler’s 1994 honours thesis at Sydney University received a perfect score of 100. His doctoral research in astrophysics won him a NASA Hubble Fellowship at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1999 he was named Young Australian of the Year. In 2002, aged 28, he became a professor at Harvard University, but he returned to Australia in 2006 and last year he was named NSW Physical Scientist of the Year. This year he received an Australian Laureate Fellowship.
Oh, and he’s just about to have his first book published.
If you’re feeling insignificant by now, that book is probably not for you. In Extreme Cosmos, Gaensler charts the hottest, brightest, oldest, biggest, fastest, heaviest and loudest known objects in the galaxy. There’s nothing like knowing the earth weighs six billion trillion tonnes to make you feel svelte, but when you realise our planet is a puny gnat compared to the sun’s 2000-trillion-trillion tonnes – which in itself is lithe next to A1, a morbidly obese giant lumbering in at 230,000 trillion trillion tonnes – it’s enough to send you on a Double Down binge.
Oh-My-God particles, cannibalistic galaxies & the speed of light
Gaensler, who is internationally known for his work on dying stars, cosmic explosions and interstellar magnets, has a deft hand at humanising these mind-fryingly complex numbers and concepts, making Extreme Cosmos an easy-to-follow, fun book for amateurs, written by an expert’s expert.
Extreme Cosmos isn’t a book of mathematical formulae and inexplicable charts. Instead, it’s filled with amazing tidbits about everything from the deepest note in the cosmos (a B flat, 56 octaves below middle C; add 635 keys to the left side of a piano and you might get there) to the Oh-My-God Particle (a proton that would give light — the unbreakable speed limit of the universe — a serious run for its money), from hot Jupiters to cannibalistic galaxies.
“You’ve actually touched on one of my main reasons for writing the book,” Gaensler begins, speaking really fast for a man who spends his days with objects that exist in timeframes of billions of years. “A lot of people are intimidated by astronomy because it’s got all these huge numbers. The message I want to get across is that yes the numbers are big but that doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the story.”
A nation of immigrants
And Gaensler is an excellent story teller, as was evident a decade ago from his moving Australia Day address, in which he talked about his grandmother – a veterinarian who came to Australia as a refugee from Nazi Germany, with no English, and who went on to contribute so much to Australian society. Ten years since he gave that speech, the immigration debate seems to have become even more divisive.
“I like to remind myself of that address from time to time,” he muses. “I feel strongly in the concept of Australia as a nation of immigrants, and I’m struck by the fact that that particular part of the address hasn’t dated. The sentiment is the same but the reasons people give now are couched in more politically correct language. Instead of saying ‘we don’t want your kind here’ they’ll say ‘we don’t want queue jumpers’.”
In 2006, Gaensler jumped ship from America, predicting that US funding for astronomy was starting to slow (and indeed, with the GFC, it did), while Australia’s investment was growing. He’d been living there for nearly a decade, had started a family there and had been made a professor at Harvard University. So in a way it was a coup for Australia’s scientific community to get him back. And he hasn’t regretted the decision once.
Scientists as heroes?
“There are a lot of positive stories about Australian scientific breakthroughs and triumphs now. When I was a kid I didn’t actually know Australia had scientists; I just thought we shore sheep and that if you wanted to be a scientist you had to move to another country. But now kids, and the general public, are exposed to the idea that we have a lot of scientists who are of world standing.”
Gaensler hopes that with Extreme Cosmos he can inspire future generations of Australians to get involved in, or interested in, science, and perhaps go on to become world-class scientists themselves.
“I got interested in astronomy at three or four, because of a book my parents bought me,” he explains. “It was very different to my book but it captured how exciting astronomy was. I like to say that astronomy is a ‘gateway drug’ for a career in science or engineering. A lot of scientists start with astronomy, because it’s very accessible and exciting. So I see astronomers as having a responsibility to be the flag-bearers or cheerleaders for the broader set of careers in science and mathematics.”
In fact, he uses the word ‘heroic’ to describe the efforts of numerous astronomers. If more people thought of scientists – not just sportsmen and women – as heroes, the profession might gain more prestige.
“I didn’t use that word with that intent,” he says. “I guess I just did it without thinking. But you’re absolutely right. I love sport, but I do get frustrated with the adulation of sports heroes, not because they don’t deserve it but because it seems out of balance. Sports people are at their peak for only a few years. But a lot of scientific success comes from having a crazy idea and sticking with it for decades until you hit the jackpot.”
It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.
Like the scientists running the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life (SETI)?
“Exactly. SETI is run by some very smart astronomers who have devoted their lives to searching for that needle in a haystack. That’s not for me. But I’m glad there are people who are carrying on that search.”
And what is Gaensler’s own opinion on their chances of success?
“My view is that it’s virtually certain that there is life elsewhere. If you ask the much harder question – is that life intelligent? – my answer becomes: I don’t know. There are so many steps that would have to happen to get life and then to have it evolve intelligence that it’s not implausible for it to have only ever happened once in the whole universe. Which would be pretty depressing to think that we’re alone, but it would certainly jell with some religious beliefs that humans are the crowing glory of the universe and we’re the reason why the universe was built, but I think from a statistical point of view it’s hard to say. The universe is essentially infinite, but does that mean it’s teaming with life? We don’t know.
My view is that it’s virtually certain that there is life elsewhere.
“The problem is that we’ve only got one out of one. When we get to the point that we’ve looked at a thousand other planets and there’s no life on any of them, then we can start to say ‘Well maybe life’s very unusual.’ If we look at a thousand planets and there’s life even on only one other of those planets then that suggests there must be life everywhere. Because the universe is so big that if it only happens once then it’s hard to conclude anything but if it happens twice then it’s a fair bet that it happens all over the place. So we just know yet but I would hope that within our lifetimes we will find life of some sort on another planet, either in our solar system or elsewhere. But I’m almost certain it will be some very simple, single-cell organism or algae or bacteria. I think intelligent life is something we’d all like to know but it’s in the realm of philosophy or science fiction.
“But as someone once said, if you want to guarantee failure you shouldn’t look. The chances of finding something if you look are very low but the chances of finding something if you don’t look are zero. So for that reason some people spend their whole lives looking.”
But until their search pays off, we just don’t know. And for Gaensler, not knowing is the most exciting thing about astronomy. “There are still so many things that we don’t understand, more mysteries than answers.” As he writes in the book, “astronomy is still the unexplored frontier, and mind-blowing discoveries are still being made all the time.”
Professor Brina Cox talks to Shaun Keaveny on BBC 6, on September 23, 2011, about the seemingly faster-than-light speed neutrinos.