Michael Murphy is a professor with Swinburne University’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Melbourne. Much of his research investigates whether the laws of physics have remained the same throughout time, everywhere in the universe. He shared the 2012 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for helping uncover hints that the fine-structure constant – the strength of electromagnetism, or “α” – may be different in different galaxies. Last year he began an A$1 million (£491,600) Future Fellowship to probe the same issue using light from relatively youthful nearby stars.
Where and when were you born, and how has it shaped who you are?
Sydney in 1977. There are dark skies in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where I grew up. I was interested in astronomy as a kid. But it wasn’t until physics in high school that I realised you could really understand how things worked, and it wasn’t until midway through university that I decided to go down the astronomy route.
What clinched it?
Research is very different to understanding the textbooks. Research requires an intuition for how to go about figuring out new things. I found I wasn’t really good at researching theoretical physics. I was good at understanding it, but not researching it. Whereas I was good at understanding and researching astronomy.
For a physics devotee, you seem frustrated with it. Why?
Physicists have four laws of nature: electromagnetism, gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Why are there four? And why can’t we marry up gravity to the other three in any consistent way? It seems messy. Another feature of our theories is fundamental constants that we just don’t understand. We have to go into the lab and measure their values because the theories don’t tell us. They just tell us there’s some number that you need to know to predict the results of experiments in the real world. It’s called “α” or “G” or whatever. That seems very unsatisfactory. Why has this number come out of thin air? That’s part of what motivates me.
You’re trying to declutter cosmic theory?
The aim of most physics research is to test the laws of nature. We’re always trying to do experiments or find theories that don’t accord with what we currently understand. If we found some observations that didn’t match our current understanding, we’d have to find a new theory. I don’t want to call it a leap of faith, but from experience we’ve come to expect that when we find something new in physics, we should be able to find a new theoretical underpinning for it. Finding that would really constitute a completely new view of the universe.
Amid the immediate preoccupation with Covid-19, is it comforting to work in utterly different timescales as you investigate whether α is the same as it was 14 billion years ago?
It’s wonderful to have that completely different focus. I see Covid-19 as a very compressed timetable event, and climate change is a very big concern to me. Thinking about those very important issues, you start to wonder whether you’re doing the right thing by applying your skills to far-off heavenly bodies – shouldn’t you be helping people? You have to step back and realise that you are helping. We need people who work on abstract problems that require different modes of thought – skills developed on different problems and thinking in different ways.
What about the pandemic has struck you most?
We’ve seen the way our society can and must change in response to a pandemic. Sure, mistakes are made and we can do some things better. We’re not on a war footing when it comes to climate change. Worldwide and in Australia, we’re falling very far behind where we need to be.
Some astrophysics graduates make big bucks in merchant banks. Does it disappoint you that they turn their backs on astronomy?
Not at all. Astrophysicists are very used to the idea that not all their students will become astronomers. There’s a big wide world of numerical problems where people need analytical ability – the same sort of nous needed in financial analysis. Some of my students and postdocs have gone into finance to start with, and then more broadly into data science or other forms of consulting where you need to be an independent problem solver. I tell my students that one of the main things they’re going to get out of their PhDs is that real skill of being able to solve a problem that no one tells them how to solve.
What do you like most about Australian higher education?
You do research on things that are curiosities to humanity. That, to me, is the mark of an advanced civilisation – to apportion resources for that pursuit, because we recognise it’s the means by which we learn new things.
What do you hate most about Australian higher education?
The application of metrics around our performance is a real undermining current in the way we allocate resources. We don’t apply them to artists or creative people, yet science is 99 per cent a creative pursuit. And the smallness and diminishing amount of resources is obviously something you can’t ignore. You see the effect of it every day in the way science operates and the jobs available to students who want to go on and be scientists, but perhaps can’t because they’re not at the top of a pile defined by metrics. In the balance between liking research and hating metrics, research wins out for me. But it doesn’t for a lot of people, and they leave.
If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
I would massively increase the research budget for universities. In particular, I would put hundreds of millions of dollars into converting many of our researchers into climate change mitigation and technology experts. The way to lead and change things is to direct real resources into changing – not just technology, not just energy transformation, not just carbon emissions per se, but society as well. We need research into how to do that and how to incentivise it.