Friday, June 21, 2013

The universe on a dinner plate

Astrophysics bright star: Bryan Gaensler.

Astrophysics bright star: Bryan Gaensler. Photo: Jane Reddy

Astronomer Bryan Gaensler and I are supposed to be having lunch, but before I leave the office he's on the phone. ''My doctor is worried I have a blood clot in my leg and he wants me to go to the hospital now,'' he says.

Lunch is postponed while he hurries off to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, around the corner from his office at the University of Sydney.

An hour later Gaensler is back on the phone, released from the hospital, and wondering if I've eaten.

We meet at The Sultan's Table in Enmore, a Turkish restaurant he and his family go to on special occasions.


Gaensler's clean bill of health continues this tradition - and means he can fly to Amsterdam the next day for a conference - although the cause of his leg pain remains unknown.

As a leader in his field of astrophysics, Gaensler has spent his career attempting to answer some of the universe's biggest unsolved mysteries.

''It's kind of embarrassing, but 95 per cent of the universe is made of dark energy and dark matter, and we have no idea what they are,'' he says.

While Gaensler is yet to uncover the ingredients of the cosmos, he knows what's good on the menu.

He starts with a selection of dips and orders a vegetarian pide, peynirli, filled with three types of cheese, egg and parsley for main course.

Another reason to celebrate is Gaensler's recent election as an Australian Academy of Science fellow, the country's highest scientific honour. And he's only 39 years old.

By weird coincidence, two of Australia's, if not the world's, leading astronomers share the same first name - the other being Nobel Prize-winner Brian Schmidt, who is an investigator at the centre Gaensler directs.

The Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) was launched in 2011 with the lofty goal of probing fundamental questions about the universe, using a fundamentally different approach, says Gaensler.

Since Galileo fashioned one of the first telescopes in the early 17th century, astronomers have built instruments with higher and more detailed resolution. Today's telescopes are so powerful they can peer deep into the cosmos, almost to the beginning of time.

But magnifying objects in great detail means looking at only a tiny fraction of the sky. The bigger picture is lost, he says.

''It's a bit like trying to work out what the world looks like when all you can see is a bit of Europe and North Africa. When you finally open the atlas you can see the whole world, all of a sudden new things become possible.''

By collecting and analysing data from the entire sky Gaensler's team hopes to answer some of this era's greatest astronomical puzzles.

''The answer to dark energy is never going to [come from studying] one object,'' he says.

Dark energy is a pattern written across the whole sky and will require gathering data from the entire sky, he says.

The caveat of such an approach is that it generates an ''insane'' amount of data, something only the latest generation of computers can cope with, but which Australia is uniquely placed to attempt.

''The one thing we're really good at is technology, and technology to look at the whole sky,'' Gaensler says. ''Australia's super power is this all-sky approach.''

The team will collect data from a range of wavelengths, mostly optical and radio.

''I can't claim that CAASTRO is going to completely wrap up dark energy and dark matter, but there are some fundamental measurements that you can make that will tell you what dark energy and dark matter are and are not, and CAASTRO is perfectly placed to take the lead,'' he says.

The centre has begun a project to map dark matter. To do this, they have to complete the ''mother of all surveys'' of the sky and repeat it four times, twice in both the southern and northern hemisphere.

It was the mysteries yet to be solved that attracted Gaensler to astronomy in the first place.

A book given to him by his parents, the Album of Astronomy, was unlike anything he had read before because it didn't have all the answers.

''It presented all these things we didn't know,'' he says.

At his primary school on Sydney's northern beaches, Gaensler's teachers were ill equipped to deal with his never-ending questions about the universe.

''My hand would go up in the middle of [the teacher] reciting the times tables and I'd say, 'How far away is Mars?'''

To keep the young Gaensler occupied, he was given the task of writing his first, and only, astronomy textbook, and ordered to run a lap of the school's oval at the end of the day for every astronomy question he asked. ''I was very fit that year.''

For his remaining two years of primary school, Gaensler attended Chatswood primary school's opportunity class before moving on to Sydney Grammar School, with the assistance of an academic scholarship, for high school.

It's not hard to imagine how Gaensler, whose childhood hobbies included computer programming, reading science fiction and tenpin bowling, excelled in the intense academic environment of the prestigious boys' school.

''It was a pressure cooker, but for me it was something I thrived on,'' he says.

As well as hard work, the school introduced Gaensler to a world beyond astronomy, fostering an interest in music, Greek, history and Latin. It was around this time he also developed a love for rugby league.

A confessed ''obsessive'' Manly Sea Eagles fan, Gaensler has been a season-ticket holder of the club for years. He even rearranged a conference in Perth so he could see his team play there. ''I ran the [Sea Eagles'] web page before they even knew they had a web page.''

Gaensler believes his intense passion for the game comes from the release it gives him.

''I go to the football and I scream and boo and call the other team a cheat, and then I come home and I'm ready to be calm, scientific and analytic,'' he says.

Off the field, much of Gaensler's research has focused on violent clashes in the cosmos, such as supernovae - exploding stars - and the objects they leave behind.

Although stellar explosions are extremely rare events to witness, Gaensler saw his first as a 13-year-old in 1987.

''Amazingly, 10 years later I was working on the same supernova for my PhD,'' he says.

By now we've finished lunch and Gaensler is holding up his dinner plate and the bread basket to explain part of his PhD research.

He discovered that following stellar explosions, the collapsed star core, a supernova remnant, would often align with our galaxy's magnetic field like cosmic compasses.

In 2005 Gaensler reported how the extreme magnetic fields of some stellar remnants, magnetars, formed when the biggest stars in the cosmos exploded.

Gaensler has quite a knack for explaining complex and abstract concepts - he has regular gigs on ABC radio and has written a popular science book, Extreme Cosmos - a skill he credits to his years as a tour guide at Sydney Observatory while at university.

''You're up against a bunch of hyperactive cubs and they can sense fear. You have to be able to think on your feet,'' he says. ''That was the making of me in so many ways.''

Gaensler's PhD research garnered international attention and he was offered astronomy's most prestigious fellowship, the NASA-funded Hubble Fellowship, which gives the recipient the option to study anywhere in the US - he chose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - on a topic of their choosing.

But even for someone as astute and academic as Gaensler, his new peers at MIT were a world away from those he had mixed with at the University of Sydney.

''You don't understand what the word intense means until you go to MIT,'' he says.

It was during his first year in Boston, overwhelmed by a feeling he did not belong and desperately homesick, that the astronomer was named Young Australian of the Year.

''I went from being king in Australia who opened McDonald's, bestowed prizes on people and speaking with the Prime Minister, and then I'd come back to my empty US apartment, with no messages on the phone. It all sounds quite pathetic.''

It's hard to sense anything but awe for Gaensler's achievements so far; following his Hubble Fellowship the astronomer was offered an ''insane amount of jobs'', several at the world's most illustrious institutions.

In the end he accepted two positions. A one-year role in research at the Smithsonian Institution, followed by an assistant, later associate, professorship at Harvard University.

Love also played its part. In Boston, Gaensler met Dr Laura Beth Bugg, who was completing her studies at Harvard. They are now married.

After the birth of the couple's son and years of harsh Boston winters, the pair decided to move back to Sydney when Gaensler was awarded a Federation Fellowship, another honour, in 2006.

Although he swore he'd never return to become ''part of the University of Sydney furniture'', Gaensler found himself back at his alma mater, wooed by generous grant funding and refurbished telescopes.

''The real reason I moved back to Australia was for rugby league,'' he jokes.

Life and Times

1973: Born in Sydney.
1985-90: Attended Sydney Grammar School
1987: Witnessed his first supernova
1991-98: Attended University of Sydney
1998: Awarded Hubble Fellowship and moves to Boston to work at MIT
1999: Named Young Australian of the Year
2001: Researcher at Smithsonian Institution
2002: Assistant Professor of Physics at Harvard University
2006: Returned to Sydney as Federation Fellow
2011: Named director of ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics
2013: Elected fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.
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