Inside the Collection

Brian Schmidt wins the Nobel Prize

It’s an exciting time for astronomy in Australia, with the recent announcement that Professor Brian Schmidt is to receive the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics and the strong possibility that the nation could be selected next year as the site for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Both optical astronomy (Schmidt’s area of expertise) and radio astronomy (the domain of the SKA) have flourished here since World War 2. Australia is thoroughly embedded in the amazing international effort to observe, measure and understand the universe.

Professor Ben Gascoigne polarimeter built at Mt Stromlo in 1963
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Gift of Mt Stromlo Observatory, 1989.

While most of the Powerhouse Museum’s astronomy collection relates to the history of our own Sydney Observatory, we have a few items used at Mt Stromlo, where Schmidt carried out his prize-winning observations. Professor Ben Gascoigne built this polarimeter at Mt Stromlo in 1963 to detect magnetic fields in distant dust clouds. The instrument, currently on display at Sydney Observatory, was designed to be bolted onto a telescope, gather the light scattered by dust particles, and detect the alignment of particles that indicates the presence of a magnetic field.

Now Brian Schmidt was born and studied in the USA but carried out key work in Australia. The aura of winning a Nobel Prize is such that we are happy to claim him as one of ours, while also making the same claim about Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, who was born and studied here but migrated to the USA, where she did the work that won her the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Both Schmidt and Blackburn hold dual citizenship, so they can be claimed legitimately by both nations. Importantly, these scientists can be seen as valuable role models for the youth of both countries, which is why the Museum is interested in telling their stories – as well as the stories of less stellar scientists such as the talented Ben Gascoigne, whose other claim to fame was as the husband of artist Rosalie Gascoigne (both of whom were born in New Zealand but chose to live in Australia).

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