Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jun. 1, 2002
Published on: The Australian
19 min read
MAGAZINE | Austro Boy


Image Caption

Bryan Gaensler, 1999 Young Australian of the Year and now astronomy’s shining star, was apolitical until the asylum seekers issue inspired him to mobilise fellow expatriates to protest.

By Wilson da Silva

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. Soon he will soon become an associate professor at the prestigious Harvard University.

And 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. In December, Gaensler 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”.

Gaensler, who describes himself as “a bit conservative” and a proud monarchist, says he’s never been politically motivated. “I’ve never been to a rally or a protest for anything. But I feel strongly about the refugee issue. This is a defining moment, when we get to decide what Australia is all about.”

It seems that the politicisation of this brilliant young scientist has much to do with his past.

It seems that the politicisation of this brilliant young scientist has much to do with his past. He is the grandchild of a refugee from Nazi oppression. Had Australia not been so welcoming to his Jewish grandmother all those years ago, Gaensler knows he would not be sitting in his splendid office in Boston today.

An early reader, the four-year-old Gaensler became 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.

Gaensler grew up reading voraciously about all manner of things, but mostly about astronomy. He won a scholarship to the academically selective Sydney Grammar. When Halley’s Comet swooped past Earth in 1986, he spent a memorable weekend at a teacher’s holiday house with 15 schoolmates, wrapt as they spied the strange new visitor to the night sky. By this time he had upgraded to a two-inch telescope, and was conducting viewings from backyards. “We saw planets, comets, double stars, asteroids,” he recalls. “I must have spent months of my life out in my back yard, or in friends’ back yards, with that telescope.”

“I really did suck at sport": the 1999 Young Australian of the Year

Gaensler recalls one schoolmate, an athletic and domineering boy with little patience for anything else, who was particularly unpleasant. But one night, Gaensler showed him the rings of Saturn through his telescope, and the boy was speechless. “At first, he was convinced I’d painted it on the end of the telescope,” he recalls. “I think he finally got it. After that, every time he saw me he’d say, ‘You know, what you do is pretty cool’.”

At Sydney University, Gaensler excelled in physics, maths and computer science but found chemistry a hard slog. While a third-year undergraduate, he qualified under the university’s talented students program and began a research project on the twinkling of quasars, distant and violent galaxies far, far away.

But it was a summer job at the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope – known locally 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. They are the universe’s biggest natural laboratories, giving insights into the fundamental properties of matter and the very structure of space and time; studying them gives physicists clues they could never glean on Earth.

“I’ll never forget the first time I heard a pulsar,” he said of that night nine years ago. He had been nudging the giant dish to and fro, scanning the skies for the signal of a particular pulsar some 1,500 light years away, made by the explosion of a supernova some 12,000 years before. From the loudspeakers in the control room came the gentle popping and crackling of interstellar static. Then, suddenly, a powerful thudding filled the room, like a jackhammer going off at 11 times a second. He’d found his pulsar.

“I was hooked,” Gaensler recalls. “I think inside every physicist, there’s a boy watching things blow up, and watching the deaths of massive stars is the ultimate extension of that. I just thought it was fantastic. And although I’ve worked on lots of different things [in my research], I always find myself coming back to pulsars.”

GAENSLER IS being modest. He hasn’t just come back to pulsars – he’s rewritten the book on them. A year after travelling the country as Young Australian of the Year in 1999, and only a week after his 26th birthday, he published a paper in the world’s leading scientific journal, Nature, that threw into doubt what astronomers had believed about pulsars for 30 years.

Using data collected with the 27-dish radio telescope network of the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the flat New Mexico desert, Gaensler showed that a pulsar that had long thought to be 16,000 years old was, in fact, at least 40,000 years old and might be as much as 170,000 years old. The discovery, made with a team of researchers led by the youthful astronomer, suggested that all pulsars could be up to 10 times older than originally thought, calling into question much of what scientists believed they knew about the physics of pulsars.

It was a paper that established him as a leading astronomer. “It goes right against the accepted wisdom, and you need a lot of self-confidence to do that,” says Dr Ray Norris, deputy director of the Australia Telescope National Facility, the country’s premier radioastronomy centre. “He’s one of the top people in his field, and that’s not bad for someone who’s that young. My guess is he will do a lot more cutting-edge stuff in his career. He’s only just getting started.”

When he published the Nature paper, Gaensler was already working at the Centre for Space Research in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, one of the top centres for radioastronomy, on a NASA Hubble Fellowship – only the second Australian to win one. Working at MIT was an eye-opener. He was taken aback by the intellectual muscle of the people around him – Nobel laureates among them – and the extraordinary resources made available to even young scientists like him. Whereas scoring a powerful new computer and some observing time on a radio telescope in Parkes was once an achievement, now he had facilities worth billions of dollars at his disposal, on the ground and in space.

Although he enjoyed the stimulation of the intense research work during his three years at MIT, Gaensler found the Boston weather woeful and the lifestyle frenetic. For many scientists, MIT is the place to be, and it is renowned for having a culture that is ultra-competitive; so much so that a spate of suicides by students too stressed by the workload or fearing bad grades has gripped the campus in the past few years, triggering an inquiry by authorities.

While Gaensler wasn’t overly stretched, he found it hard to lead a balanced life in the MIT bubble – everyone he met had PhDs, even people working behind the counters of convenience stores. The only people he socialised with were from MIT, and at MIT parties everyone talked shop, from robotics to high-energy physics. He found the bravado of some researchers – who spoke with what seemed quiet pride about how their family lives had suffered as a result of their intense workloads – misplaced and unhealthy.

“I think this is something that every scientist struggles with,” Gaensler says, furrowing his thick-set eyebrows. “You see some people who are incredibly successful and you think ‘I want to be like them, I want to make that many discoveries, I want to have that sort of genius and ability’. But there are people who have very unhappy family lives or who have never married and have really thrown away opportunities to do other things in their lives, or have even had health problems because of how hard they work. And you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it? How far do I want to take this’?”

But then, at one of the parties in January 2000, he met Laura Beth Bugg, a student of ancient history and a tutor at Harvard University. The boy from Sydney and the girl from Kentucky got along well. He took her to see a visiting Australian band, The Whitlams, and it was that night – with the couple shouting hoarsely for more encores at Bill’s Bar, with its black-comedy decor – that they realised they had something going. “Obviously the magic of great Aussie pub rock turned it all around for me,” Gaensler admits.

A year later, atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he proposed and in March this year they married in Winthrop House, the Harvard resident college in which John F. Kennedy lived as an undergraduate, surrounded by 10,000 books and an 18th century telescope. With the many well-wishers from Australia came a note from The Whitlams’ singer Tim Freeman: “Glad I could be the conduit to your love.”

Gaensler’s office is a small shrine to Australia. The long but narrow brick cubicle is littered with Australian paraphernalia as much as astronomical texts, and a large poster of the Manly Sea Eagles greets you at the door. Inside, his computer plays ABC Radio Triple J via the Internet all day, and every morning he reads Australian newspapers online over a cup of coffee. Just outside his window, in the cold light of a Boston morning, rises the historic copper dome of Harvard’s Great Refractor telescope, founded in 1847 and used over the next 75 years to write much of the early history of modern astronomy.

“It was probably an unprecedented time in astronomy, when so many discoveries were made at the one place,” enthuses Gaensler. “It’s very inspiring to be walking up Observatory Hill to work every morning and thinking of all these amazing people who used to work here and came to the same place, probably feeling the same buzz that I get.”

The Centre for Astrophysics was formed out of the 1973 merger of two old and distinguished institutions: the 1839 Harvard College Observatory and the 1890 Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In the main building where Gaensler has his office, there are 300 astronomers – five times as many as in all of Australia. He applied for the job as his fellowship at MIT was ending; Gaensler tried anything that looked interesting, including jobs in Europe and Australia. But as things with Laura Beth got serious, he focused his search on Boston. He was offered two of the most plum jobs in town: the research position at the Centre for Astrophysics, and a position as an associate professor at Harvard University.

Unable to choose between them, he took both. He told the centre he would take the job but would only stay a year because he’d like to move on to Harvard. And he told Harvard, one of the world’s top universities, that he’d like to finish off some research at the centre before starting his teaching duties, and would they mind waiting a year while he did that?

It is a measure of his bankability that the young scientist was able to rearrange the plans of two of the world’s major institutions to suit his own needs. On top of that, since Harvard owns the building and he’s headed there in July, Gaensler asked if the centre would mind finding him an office in the highly sought-after main building, on the same floor as the space jockeys working on the hottest astronomy project of the day: the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Laura Beth Bugg and Bryan Gaensler

Gaensler has to scratch himself every now and then to believe where he is. Although often depicted as the poster boy for the brain drain, the truth is that he is one of a dozen Australians working at the centre, and more are coming. Nevertheless, it’s an issue that obviously troubles him.

“Harvard’s getting all the glory from anything I discover, not Australia, and in some sense I guess that is a brain drain,” he admits. But he says he’ll return one day, bringing his skills and contacts home. “If I had chosen to stay in Australia, I think my opportunities and my career path would have been very limited. All my Australian colleagues here, we all miss home, and we all hope to get back there one day, but we accept that in order to be the best scientists we can be, we have to spend a fair chunk of time away.”

THERE IS ALSO a sense in which he feels that he owes Australia: after all, it granted his grandmother sanctuary all those years ago. A Jewish university student from an affluent German family, she was 17 when Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933. By 1939 it became obvious she couldn’t stay. By then a qualified veterinarian and married only months before, she and her new husband fled the country. But in the confusion, they were separated – his grandmother boarding a ship headed for Australia, her husband boarding a different one. She never saw him again.

She arrived in Melbourne speaking no English, with no family, no job and no skills (since her German qualifications were not recognised). She wore strange clothing, came from an ethnic and religious background few in Australia were familiar with, and was fleeing a conflict that would have appeared distant and largely irrelevant to ordinary Australians. Despite this, she found Australians were eager to help her adjust, make new friends and find work.

His grandmother is now 84. Having married again, borne three sons and now with five grandchildren, she has returned to university to obtain a degree in psychology. She is heavily involved in community service and has recently discovered the Internet.

This is what so troubles him about the treatment of asylum seekers. His grandmother also arrived by boat seeking asylum, had nothing to offer, but nevertheless “built a life for herself and is now a very successful, intelligent woman who’s made a lot of contributions to society. I’m her grandson; if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be here”.

“I think that we should be letting in refugees, I think we should be opening our doors wide,” he says emphatically. “I think that my story proves that these supposedly useless, stupid people who don’t speak English can actually – if you give them a chance – make fantastic contributions to Australia.

“Now we have people coming from other horrific regimes … and it’s pretty shocking to see people close me back in Australia – even someone whose mother was a Holocaust survivor – saying, ‘We don’t want these people coming to our country, what do they have to offer?’ It’s very frustrating that people aren’t learning from history. I just think that these people deserve a chance.”

His letter to the prime minister made the newspapers back home and triggered an avalanche of mail – not all of it supportive. “It brought some rather unsavoury people out of the woodwork who sent some pretty disgusting e-mails,” he said. This hasn’t deterred him; his first cautious foray into political activism has, if anything, galvanised the young astronomer to be more outspoken. Last month, Gaensler launched a new column in Australasian Science magazine urging scientists to use the space to “rock the boat” and express forthright views on national issues.

One aspect of the open letter that troubles him is that although 60 per cent of expatriates he approached were scientists, less than a quarter responded. Many agreed with his sentiments but didn’t want to endorse them in writing. “There’s always this fear of speaking out because you’re reliant on government funding,” Gaensler says. “But I think scientists do have a responsibility. We’ve got to abandon this reluctance to speak our minds. Look at Einstein; he used his position as a public figure to speak out about social justice and nuclear proliferation.”

While Gaensler is reluctant to trade on his profile as a former Young Australian of the Year, he believes this issue is too important to stay silent. And while his head continues to be preoccupied by the stars, it seems his heart will be increasingly fixed on the burning issues of home.