Going to Extremes

Cosmos Online blog | 1 September 2011

Bryan Gaensler and his son Finn at the book launch

The following is from the book launch for Extreme Cosmos by Bryan Gaensler at Shearer’s Bookshop in Sydney.

by Wilson da Silva

I FIRST MET Bryan Gaensler in 2002, when I was in Boston to profile him for The Weekend Australian Magazine. Bryan was just about to start his new job as an associate professor at Harvard – which is not bad for someone who wasn’t even 30 yet.

His office was easy to find: there was a huge poster of the Manly Sea Eagles on the door, and his office was a shrine to his home country, littered with Australiana, and his computer constantly playing Triple J.

This is how I described him then: “It’s hard not to be impressed by Bryan Gaensler. At 28, he has a prestigious job at the global ivory tower of astronomy, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. He rubs shoulders effortlessly with the world’s best and brightest, has made discoveries that impress those much older, and written papers that are widely cited by colleagues.

“[But] for the first time in his life, Gaensler is getting political. Ever since the Tampa affair, the former Young Australian of the Year has been stewing. [He] led a group of 137 of Australia’s brightest expatriates in writing an open letter to Prime Minister John Howard criticising his stand on asylum seekers, and decrying that “Australia’s international standing as an open and tolerant nation has been compromised”. The letter castigated “the Government’s use of language that dehumanises and vilifies refugees trying to escape persecution”.

(The ‘Tampa Affair’, for those unfamiliar, was a dark chapter in Australian history. In August 2001, the conservative Liberal-National government of former Australian prime minister John Howard refused permission to enter Australian waters to a Norwegian freighter carrying 438 Afghan asylum seekers. The Afghans had been headed for Australia, until their fishing vessel became distressed in international waters, and were rescued by the Tampa. When the captain of the Tampa decided to steam ahead and dock in nearby Australian territory of Christmas Island, Howard ordered commandos to storm the vessel and detain the asylum seekers and crew.)

That still sums up Bryan for me: a brainiac at the top of his field; who nevertheless enjoys the pursuits of the common man (even if it is rugby league in general, and the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles in particular); and he also has a conscience and wants to do some good in the world.

It was only later that I realised he was also a damn fine writer. Bryan is one of the those rare combinations: a passionate scientist who is pushing back the frontiers – making real advances in his field – but who can also write beautifully. And as the editor-in-chief of the world’s only literary science magazine, COSMOS, I can tell you that I see a lot of good writing; nevertheless, his byline is in the top tier of what we publish, and we always welcome it.

Bryan owes his own journey down the path of science to a book: at age 4, he was fascinated by a children’s book on astronomy, full of artists’ impressions of planets, galaxies and spaceships. He was excited to read that there was still so much that was unknown about the universe. “I must have read that book a hundred times,” he recalls fondly. “I thought it was the most fantastic thing I’d ever seen. It just seemed so much more interesting than the usual books about planes and dinosaurs and race cars.”

Born in Sydney, he grew up in the sparsely populated middle-class northern suburb of Frenchs Forest, surrounded by bushland and scores of plant nurseries. He says his childhood was “magical”, playing cricket and rugby during the day and then peering through a tiny telescope he was given for his birthday at night, spying the craters on the Moon or the rings of Saturn.

And he grew up reading voraciously and won a scholarship to Sydney Grammar. But despite being obsessed with sport (and I do mean obsessed, as anyone who knows him will attest ), he actually sucks at it. His all-time highest score in cricket at school was one run.

As you can imagine, his geeky interests and his lack of sporting prowess attracted trouble. Even then, Bryan could inspire: picked on by one athletic and domineering schoolmate, he showed him the rings of Saturn through his telescope, and the boy was speechless –convinced Bryan had painted it on the end of the telescope. “I think he finally got it. After that, every time he saw me he’d say, ‘You know, what you do is pretty cool’.”

Later, at the University of Sydney, Bryan excelled in physics, maths and computer science, and began a research project on the twinkling of quasars, violent galaxies far, far away. But it was a summer job at the CSIRO’s Parkes radiotelescope – which, thanks to the film we know all know as The Dish – that he fell in love with radio astronomy. And it was here that he decided to focus his career on pulsars: the massively dense, rapidly spinning hearts of ancient dead stars.

Ever since, he’s been kind of obsessed (there’s that word again) with things that blow up: the extremes of things. So I think it’s only fitting that his first book is about the extremes of the known universe: the hottest, the brightest, the oldest, the biggest, the fastest, the heaviest and the loudest known objects.

When Bryan started this book, he freely admits he thought he would ‘knock it over’ in three months. He thought it would just require a bit of research, bit of a trawl through the astronomy equivalents of Wikipedia, a bit of sexing it up and telling the back story, and bam! Instant book.

It took him two solid years. Not because he found the writing difficult – as I said, he has a natural fluidity in is writing that is both engaging and conversational. It’s because most of the questions he wanted to answer in his book nobody else had really tackled before. There were claims for the hottest - or the fastest or whatnot – in the media over the years. But they were usually concocted by the publicity people and journalists trying to make a story interesting.

It turns out that scientists don’t actually care about such claims. So he had to pore back through original scientific papers, tabulate the results again, work out the methodology used in varied techniques for measurement so he could understand them, often do his own calculations, and sometimes email experts around the world, before he could finally arrive at a result he could be comfortable was likely to be accurate.

Take the question: when was the first sound ever made? It’s one sentence in the book, but it took Bryan days to pin it down, and was not resolved until he spoke to eminent experts in the field.

“I thought I could do a lot of writing on the plane, on the way to places,” he told me earlier this week (Bryan travels a lot). “Pretty soon, I realised it was impossible: in just about every sentence, I’d have to make a judgement about something, and I couldn’t do that without referring to source material. So I couldn’t do it without constant Internet access.”

He ended up writing a big chunk of the book at the food court of Chatswood Chase shopping centre, relying for the free McDonalds wifi in the two hours his son Finn was attending Sunday school. He would also camp out at a cubicle in Fisher Library at the university, and write for hours, or upstairs in his study at home.

His lovely wife, Dr Laura-Beth Bugg, grew used to Bryan excusing himself from familial evenings to retreat to the seclusion he needed. This wasn’t the first book to try a partner’s patience, I’m sure.

Extreme Cosmos is the end result. I highly commend it to you, and I hope that it will be the first of many such engaging, quirky, and throughly readable tomes from the young man I would consider Australia’s budding Carl Sagan.

Bryan Gaensler is professor of physics at the University of Sydney and director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (or CAASTRO).

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