Tete-a-Tete Education

Studying astrophysics: Written in the stars

Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt talks about astrophysics and related opportunities at Australian National University.

Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor, Australian National University, also happens to be a Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist and cosmologist. He was jointly awarded the prize for physics in 2011 for his discovery that the universe is expanding, at an accelerating rate. He was recently in India on a visit organised by the Australian Trade and Investment Commission. Excerpts from an interview.

Implications of an expanding universe

The discovery that the universe is accelerating begs the question ‘Why?’ Einstein came up with a solution by accident. He called it the cosmological constant, but we think of it now as dark energy — energy that spreads everywhere in the cosmos. If such a substance exists, it causes gravity to push rather than pull. Everything we’ve done has been to check that basic idea. It is kind of a strong working hypothesis but there are a couple of issues. One is — why would the dark energy be there? Was the universe just born with it?

Studying astrophysics: Written in the stars
 

The other thing that worries people is — are we really sure that it’s always been there and will always be there? Maybe it’s changing over time. This discovery has profound implications for what we see as the future of the universe. Is it going to last forever or not? So it’s a really fundamental part of physics and at the core of everything we think is going to happen in the future.

Motivation for a research problem that could span years

Well, there are little victories along the way. In this case, back when I was working on this problem, I didn’t realise that I was going to discover acceleration. I was just trying to measure the future of the universe by looking at its past. And you have goals along the way — I have to find exploding stars, measure them and calculate what that means.

So every few months you have a big thing that you get done. There are lots of milestones along the way.

Career paths

Astrophysics is a really interesting field, and will be for decades to come. It’s hard to get a permanent job in astrophysics, but I can tell you that many of my students get a lot of interesting job offers outside of astrophysics. My students are dealing with petabytes of data. And businesses usually do not have people who know how to deal with large amounts of data. All of my students are great coders in languages such as C++ and Python, and are mathematically literate.

Astronomers are quite flexible — they know physics, computer science, and chemistry. They make good data scientists and also go into finance, medical research, and start-ups of all sorts. Research isn’t the only path and it is not even the primary path anymore.

Perks of a PhD

I would say that PhDs aren’t just for being at universities anymore. They give you a wide array of options. People are worried about the future of work. The best solution to this, I think, is getting a really good Ph.D. I’m not guaranteeing it’ll make you rich, but I think it’ll give you job security in a way that almost nothing else will. PhDs in astronomy, physics, computer science and engineering are very valuable.

Programmes

At ANU, you would typically do a physics undergraduate degree, but take some astronomy courses too. Most of our undergraduates who are going to do astronomy would do some research projects as part of their coursework.

This allows them to use physics, computer science and math. And many of them end up writing papers. You don’t specialise until a master’s or doctoral programme. And that’s pretty much across all of Australia. There are, I think, 13 universities in Australia that offer astronomy.

On the Australian government’s abolition of the 457 skilled visa

This only affects people who are coming to work. The 457 is a temporary visa, what we call a skilled migrant visa, and it is the programme by which universities bring people in to be post-docs or faculty members. I actually don’t think the university sector is likely to be affected much. Students shouldn’t be affected at all. Australia is quite good in terms of how it treats its students. When students come in from India or anywhere else, they do get a chance to work during their degree (paid work for 20 hours on a student visa), and after completing it.

Transition

You get a few years to work on a student visa, after you graduate. Specifically, two years for a bachelor’s degree, three years for a master’s and four years for a PhD. It’s commonly called the post-study visa. Once that is done, you have to go through the normal visa process.

Support at ANU

The full list of scholarships is on our website. Of particular interest to Indian students will be the new ANU Excellence Scholarships. ANU also provides assistance to students with career advice and job search and also in finding internships.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 12:53:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/written-in-the-stars/article18955125.ece

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