Published 30 June 2019 by Alaina G. Levine
Interview with Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt
Brian Schmidt, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011, is no stranger to Lindau. He has participated in the meeting multiple times, starting in 2012, and is always a favourite with the young scientists. He is open, friendly, casual, and passionate about STEM and is always up for a conversation with early-career scientists and engineers about the positive future they can manifest, both for themselves and humanity. In fact, if you chat with Brian, who is the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, you find that he is very serious about what young STEM-educated professionals can and will do for all of us on this blue orb we call Earth.
In advance of his highly anticipated keynote at #LINO19, Brian spoke with me via phone from Canberra, and gave us some hints about what he will discuss, how he views the young scientists as the ultimate problem solvers of humanity’s grand challenges, and what the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings mean to him. This interview has been edited lightly for space and clarity.
AGL: Can you give us a preview on what you are going to discuss in your keynote?
BS: I’m still going through my head of exactly what I’m going to do because I have been done a number of these things. I’ve been asked to not just give a talk about my specific research, I’m a Vice Chancellor right now, so President of a university, so it’s an opportunity to tell people the story of how the research works at a giant system and for people to understand the importance of what we all do, even if broken into its little pieces, it sometimes seems a bit inconsequential. I want to talk about the importance in society that humanity places on research, not often acknowledged, and I want to make sure that people understand how they themselves think. There is a lot of distrust in research right now, due to certain societal trends that are happening and how the basic constructs of society are changing very rapidly. It is worthwhile talking about that, so people better understand how to communicate their research and how to make sure it has impact, but also to give them confidence that what they are doing is extraordinarily important, and quite frankly, if we are not all doing this stuff, we have no hope for humanity. It is important for people to realise we really are the people who are going to help solve the worlds problems, and there are a lot of problems that need to be solved.
AGL: So are you looking at this as both an informative and inspirational/aspirational speech?
BS: I think it is more aspirational, and there will be information, and a resilience. A lot of people find it really hard at the end of their PhDs and postdocs, and [may] say “why am I doing this?” But I also want to give people a tool kit, so they can better have the influence they need to help change the world however they see fit.
AGL: Can you give me an example of what is in the toolkit?
BS: I really want to talk about the whole notion of scepticism and science, and for people to understand human behaviour. A lot of work I’ve become interested in trying to understand myself is why smart people become anti-vaxxers and climate sceptics. You have to understand how the human brain works to begin to realise what we are up against, which is considerable. It is worthwhile, rather than getting mad and shouting at people (which is what we all feel like doing), to take a deep breath, understand what is going on, and hopefully collectively unwind a lot of the damage that has been done over the last decade.
AGL: I think it is very interesting that you are looking at it from both a strategic and tactical point of view and providing tools and information and aspiration, about how you can take action in your world, as a scientist, as a physicist.
BS: It is interesting- how does one counteract these behaviours of psychology? I am not convinced the tool kit is out there yet. How do you counteract propaganda? Propaganda works for a reason.
AGL: When you use the title of your keynote “Big Questions for Society, Big Questions for Research” how do you connect this to the young scientists or established science professionals, who are working on what may seem to them as a very narrow field or sub-sub-field? How do you connect the work they are doing in this narrow subfield to the big questions for society and the big questions for research?
BS: It will be by example, and it’s a matter of providing personal examples of things around me, and if I can show examples of people in the audience, I will do so. I really do want to show that although it feels like there are such small, little things that we know, the reality is that they come together to create something in ways you cannot predict or understand in advance. So it will simply be providing some examples that illustrate how little innocuous things come together and actually are really important to society. It can be discoveries. It can be working with people. It can be relationships. It can be developing tools to do something.
AGL: I see you will be participating in the “Global Science in Reaching for the Stars Session”, hosted by South Africa, on Monday. What do you see the connection and collaboration opportunities ahead with South Africa?
BS: I think South Africa has a great history and hopefully a great future. I know the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. She is a mathematician and is in a university group with the ANU. I have a big affinity for the South Africa project personally. They are not a huge collaborator for ANU itself, as we tend to work in other parts of Africa that are less developed. But we have the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which Australia and South Africa are two leaders in, and I have always been working hard to get the two countries to be collaborative rather than competitive. I think South Africa is, indeed, a role model and spearhead for Africa, to help Africa develop prosperously in the future so I think it’s very important to support it whenever we can. It is a really inspiring place.
AGL: Why is it important for you to attend Lindau so often?
BS: Partially because I find it enjoyable and interesting. If I hated it, I wouldn’t show up. For me personally, I find it a very interesting event, and it’s interesting because of the 600 young people from around the world that come together. It’s the only event I get where there are 600 students from around the world, all research students, and you are seeing the future of the world. When I first went, I was 44. I am 52 now. Every year you get a little older and little more out of touch of the young generation, and this is a chance to be immersed in the young generation. I am not sure if it makes me feel old or young but it is a very stimulating time for me and I hope I can to do my little part to help some of these future research leaders have prosperous careers.
AGL: What is the one message that you want to leave the young scientists with?
BS: What you do matters! And you should go forth with confidence. We all have the bad parts of [our] experiment, but what you do matters and is important, and have the confidence to persist with it as long as it is what you want to do.
AGL: Is there anything else you would like to share with the young scientists?
BS: Come up and have a chat with us about anything. Laureates love to talk to the students and postdocs and that’s why we are there. Please come up and you can tell us about anything you want – science, or otherwise.
AGL: And they can ask you about anything as well, right?
BS: That’s right! It’s meant to be a conversation.