Universe is speeding up, says former Alaskan and Nobel winner

Mike Dunham
Bartlett High School graduate Brian Schmidt won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Schmidt is currently an astrophysicist at the Australian National University Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research school of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Australia. 130824
Bob Hallinen
Bartlett High School graduate Brian Schmidt won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Schmidt is currently an astrophysicist at the Australian National University Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research school of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Australia. 130824
Bob Hallinen

Former Alaskan Brian Schmidt gives the age of the known universe with consummate confidence. "It's 13.8 billion years," he said in an interview on Saturday. "Maybe 13.7 or 13.9. But it's not 13.6 and it's not 14."

Schmidt should know. Now a distinguished professor and astrophysicist at the Australian National University, he shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics. He's also won astronomy's prestigious Shaw Prize and is leading the international SkyMapper telescope project.

But before that, he was just another Anchorage kid going to Bartlett High School.

"I was into cross-country running, skiing track," he recalled. "I also played horn with the Anchorage Youth Symphony and did some drama."

Schmidt was born in Missoula, Mont. and came to Alaska in 1981, just shy of his 13th birthday. "I finished my eighth grade at Wendler," he said.

His father, Dana, was a fisheries biologist who initially came to the state to prepare environmental studies for the proposed Susitna dam. Donna, his mother, had a variety of jobs, including working as the manager of the classified advertising department at the Anchorage Daily News.

Brian was an only child and his parents were young when they had him. "I grew up along with my parents," he said. "That doesn't always work, but for me it worked really, really well."

"I was always watching my father do science and thinking it was fun," he said. "I always wanted to be a scientist. Why would anyone want to be anything else?"

Initially he thought he'd become a meteorologist. He volunteered to work for the National Weather Service office in Anchorage and found it was not what he expected.

"It was a great experience, transformative," he said. "But it taught me that what I thought was my dream job was not what I was destined to do."

Graduating from Bartlett, he headed to college at the University of Arizona in Tucson not quite sure what to do with himself. "Astronomy was sort of an afterthought," he said.

But he turned out to be good at it. He suffered through the Arizona heat for four years -- returning in the summers to visit his parents, who had moved to Kodiak -- and went on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard.

Universe in overdrive

Schmidt shared the Nobel Prize with Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. The discovery that brought the prize caught the team by surprise, he said.

They had set out to determine whether the expansion of the universe was slowing down or it had stopped altogether. Either scenario would indicate an eventual collapse of creation. They analyzed data from the most distant observable objects, the light from supernovas as far as 11 billion light years away, light from near the beginning of time, "as far back as we can see things," Schmidt said.

"What we found was unexpected. The universe is speeding up. Why is still a mystery."

One likely explanation is suggested by Albert Einstein, he said, the concept that space itself is filled with energy. The amount is minute when it involves the space occupied by an individual human body or even a little blue planet. But cumulatively -- counting nebulae, black holes, galaxies and the gaps between them -- it is enormous. The team deduced that 70 percent of the entire universe is the energy of space itself, Schmidt said. That energy, manifested as gravity, causes space to be pushed apart.

But not everywhere. "The part of the universe we're in is not expanding right now," Schmidt said. Earth and the Milky Way Galaxy are in a ball of stability, about five million light years across. The density of this region is much higher than most of the universe. Gravity stopped expansion here around 13.5 billion years ago, very soon after the "Big Bang" is thought to have set in motion the development of the cosmos as presently understood.

This local stability should lead to consolidation. The Milky Way and nearby Andromeda Galaxy will merge in about three billions years. But as the rest of the cosmos spreads out with ever-increasing speed, light from those distant objects will inevitably become "trapped" and unable to reach us.

"We'll eventually be in a big galaxy -- and not able to see anything," Schmidt said.

In a way it's propitious that recent discoveries are coming at this time. Once the light from the beginning of the universe moves beyond the range of detection, Schmidt said, "our ability to learn about the Big Bang all disappears."

It's not that anything is moving faster than the speed of light, he stressed, but because space itself is growing.

Outside our little ball, space is moving outward according to a formula Schmidt expressed as "one centimeter per second per decade." He used his fingers to talk across a tabletop to demonstrate the speed. But he noted that it's really not velocity in the sense of a speeding car or cross-country runner.

His current project involving the next generation of telescopes -- old fashioned glass optics remain the best method for this purpose, he said -- will help nail down a more precise rate, perhaps something that can be extrapolated into the astrophysical equivalent of miles per hour.

But Schmidt does not anticipate any future information to upstage his previous work.

"People ask me what my next great accomplishment's going to be. I say, it's pretty hard to top discovering 70 percent of the universe."

Wine and kangaroos

While at Harvard Schmidt met an Australian economics student, Jenny Gordon. "On our first date she asked what kind of wine I'd like. I said I didn't know anything about wine. She said, 'If you're going to date an Australian, you're going to need to learn about wine."

They married and moved to Australia. They own a farm, a few acres of which are used to cultivate pinot noir grapes.

"We have two dogs (Munday and Shadow, black labs), a fat cat (Rodney), two chickens, four horses and about 250 kangaroos that come and go as they please," he said. "They're not quite moose, but kind of like our deer."

They also have two sons, Kieran, 18, and Adrian, 16.

Schmidt has adopted his wife's country. They live near Canberra, the capital and the coolest part of the continent. "We had snow just before I left," he said. "But it never sticks."

"Living in Australia is quite similar to living in Alaska or the western U.S. in terms of how people are," he said. "I find Boston more of a foreign culture than Australia."

He regularly visited his parents in Alaska until they moved to Canada in 1998. His mother died in 2009. His father is now back in Alaska, once again helping prepare an environmental study for the resurrected Susitna dam proposal.

The city still looks and feels like the place where he grew up, he said.

"When I come back, I see a lot of the U.S. has changed, but Anchorage hasn't. And that's good. It still has the same soul it had.

"It was a great place to be a young person. I meet people from all around the world, from all backgrounds and parts of society. And I would not change my upbringing with anyone."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.