For a Nobel Prize winner, Professor Brian Schmidt makes a pretty good pinot noir.

Nestled in the hills outside Canberra, he and his family have created a vineyard that is a quiet counterpoint to a consuming scientific career.

"It's a beautiful process," Professor Schmidt said.

"I personally find it as a great way to decouple from my other universe of astronomy, so astronomy doesn't completely take over my life.

"On the other hand it's where some of my best thoughts are. It's sort of like taking a shower where you can clear everything out and focus on whatever comes into your mind. It's a very creative time for me, for my science, just going out and doing the manual work that a vineyard requires."

But the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics says he never imagined he would have a vineyard in his own backyard.

"Jenny and I moved out here in 1999 and when we bought the place, we hadn't really had the idea of a vineyard in mind," Professor Schmidt said.

"But I saw this hill which is north-south and it looked perfect for a place to put a vineyard."

He says the hill was bare and he dreamed of a retirement where he could make great wine.

"I didn't know a lot about growing grapes, but I'm a good reader, most of the wine makers in the region were ex-scientists and so I had the ability to start talking to them about it," Professor Schmidt said.

"They all told me 'don't do it, it's insane!', but I'm very glad I did and my fellow wine makers have really provided a huge amount of help."

Professor Schmidt says there is certainly an element of crossover between wine and the stars.

"There's an art to it but there is also some science to it and where those things interplay is I guess what I enjoy," he said.

Not to say that the vineyard is a giant lab and the winemaking is some kind of experiment.

"It's about understanding the science enough to make sure I don't screw up the natural processes that the French have been doing for 1,000 years," he said.

While the winery consumes hundreds of hours every year - pruning, picking, crushing and barrelling - Professor Schmidt says it is a necessary labour of love.

"The vineyard does take a fair bit of my life and that's intentional," he said.

"Astronomy could take over every part of my life and it sort of has since the Nobel Prize and even before that. But this imposes a boundary where I have to be here to work on the vineyard.

"It's very important to me and it forces me to do something other than astronomy, and that is why I like it."

Professor Schmidt was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 2011 for his work in discovering that the universe is not only expanding but accelerating too.

For the past 18 years he has worked at the Australian National University's Mount Stromlo Observatory, studying supernovae in the southern sky.

Supernovae are exploding stars which are among the brightest objects in the universe.

Professor Schmidt and his team used the difference in brightness between supernovae to measure distances in space, leading him to the discover an accelerating universe.

"It turns out that the biggest discoveries in science are not just confirming what you already know, it's finding something you didn't know," he said.

"When I moved to Australia in 1994 I had the idea of 'what was the ultimate fate of the universe?' A not insignificant question, certainly.

"I was going to measure this by seeing how fast the universe is expanding now and compare it to what the universe was doing billions of years ago, by looking at really distant objects and seeing how fast they're moving apart from each other.

"The idea was that we'd measure back in the past and compare it to how fast the universe is expanding now and if the universe was slowing down really quickly due to the effect and pull of gravity, then I would know that the universe would reach a maximum size and then start to collapse.

"But when we finalised the measurements in 1998 we found that the universe was expanding slower in the past and had sped up over the past 6 billion years.

"It turns out we believe, the average effect of gravity across the universe isn't to pull on the universe, it's to push on the universe. That's because most of the universe, 70 percent of it, was stuff we didn't know was there. Stuff we now call Dark Energy. Energy that is part of everything."

While it may not seem like winemaking, dark energy and astronomy have much in common, Professor Schmidt says they share some surprising links.

"All of the elements that constitute the earth and everything on it, besides hydrogen and helium, come from the heart of a supernova," Professor Schmidt said.

"When they explode they create the iron and the carbon, oxygen, silicon and sulphur that the earth is made out of, that we are made of.

"When we look around the earth, for example the iron ore that we're exporting to China, two thirds of that was created in the exploding stars that I studied to measure the ultimate fate of the universe.

"The other third were in a different type of supernovae but all of that iron was created in these exploding stars."

Thirteen years went by between the discovery in 1998 and the awarding of the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile the theory was tested by the scientific community.

Professor Schmidt says the award was a big surprise.

"It wasn't anything I ever considered winning, it never really was on my agenda for my life. It's really exciting," he said.

"It gives you amazing opportunities to do new things but it also makes it hard to do some of the things that you used to do, like sitting down in your office and not being interrupted for eight hours."

But while Professor Schmidt says being left alone to work would be nice, winning the Nobel Prize and meeting prime ministers, presidents and kings has given him the opportunity to press home the message of science to politicians from all camps.

"Politicians are people and some find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that the earth really is a little less than 13,000 kilometres across. It is finite and when we do things on earth, we are affecting the earth," he said.

He says people believe science should be black and white, but science is never black and white.

"The laws of physics that we use to power our computers and that makes technology and how that enhances our lives, that's all based on theories which are probably not exactly correct, but they're still useful," he said.

"Trying to get society to come to terms with the uncertainties of science but that the fact that it's still useful is one of my goals while trying to teach science to both kids and politicians alike."

Professor Schmidt says while he use cannot predict the future through science, life's big questions all come back to balance.

"The big problem with science careers is people love them so much that they can't bear having to do something else with their life," he said.

"Life is a balance and I really want to have my life not be entirely science and one of the great things about living here in Canberra is you really can live in the bush.

"Living on a farm just outside of town was something that really appealed to my wife and myself and having a vineyard there is something that allows me to focus on something other than astronomy.

"That's good for my mind and gives me some spice to life because astronomy's great, but do I really want to do it day in day out and think of nothing else? No, I like life."

 

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