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“Under the radar. The first woman in radio astronomy: Ruby Payne-Scott” by WM Goss and Richard X McGee, published by Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2010 – book review

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Ruby Payne-Scott while she was a student at the University of Sydney in the early 1930s. From the Bill Hall family collection, provided by Miller Goss

Ruby Payne-Scott is not a household name in Australia, but she should be. She was an essential part of the small group of scientists who at the Division of Radiophysics in Sydney in the years after the Second World War began the science of radio astronomy. Their work provided such a great foundation that today Australia is recognised internationally as one of the leaders in the field.

Amazingly, the scientists who were making epoch-making discoveries about radiation from the Sun and from distant galaxies initially knew nothing about astronomy or solar physics. According to Paul Wild in the Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia in 1987, Harley Wood of Sydney Observatory was one of two astronomers who helped to teach the “rudiments” of astronomy to these pioneers.

Others in the Radiophysics group like John Bolton, Paul Wild, “Chris” Christiansen and Bernie Mills became subsequently much better known than Ruby Payne-Scott. Part of the reason for this lack of recognition is that her career was cut short by childbirth. In those distant, and now hard to imagine days, there was no maternity leave so that there was no alternative for Ruby Payne-Scott but to resign in 1951 when she was expecting her first child.

The new book Under the Radar aims to redress the balance by focusing on the life and work of Ruby Payne-Scott. And she did have a fascinating life and made major scientific discoveries and contributions.

After completing her secondary education at Sydney Girls High, Ruby Payne-Scott studied at Sydney University. There she became only the third woman to receive a degree in physics and the 90th person to complete a physics honours degree. She went on to also complete a Master of Science degree, then the highest degree available from the School of Physics, while working for the ill-fated Cancer Research Committee.

On leaving the University she had a stint teaching in Adelaide, but moved back to Sydney to work for Amalgamated Wireless Australia just before the War. In 1941 she joined Division of Radiophysics, which as part of CSIR (the forerunner of CSIRO) was carrying out secret development work on radar.

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Ruby Payne-Scott with Alec Little and “Chris” Christianson (on the right) at Radiophysics’ Potts Hill Reservoir field station, probably in late 1948. From ATNF Historical Photographic Archive B14315, provided by Miller Goss

During the War radio emissions from the Sun were noted by a number of people and this “radio noise” was followed up from 1945 by Ruby Payne-Scott and colleagues. Working from a number of Radiophysics sites in Sydney including Dover Heights and Potts Hill reservoir she made major discoveries regarding the various type I, II and III bursts from the Sun.

The authors of Under the Radar have collected a large variety of information about Ruby Payne-Scott and do not cover just her research. They relate how she fought back against her treatment when CSIRO management discovered her marriage and discuss her politics which led to the compilation of an ASIO file on her activities. There is information about her family, anecdotes from friends and discussion of her and her husband’s passion for bushwalking. The book is illustrated with many fascinating photographs – I like Ruby’s propensity to eat while posing for photographs, possibly so as not to waste time.

For the record there are a few trivial typos and other corrections that are entirely forgivable in such a detailed and complex publication:

Page 12, the elder of two daughters is referred to as the “eldest”

Page 27, “completed the work for a Certificate of Education” should be “Diploma of Education” as on the previous page. Also this would have been awarded by the Sydney Teachers College not the University of Sydney.

Page 57, footnote 15, the received energy from a radar target is given as 10 to the power 14 watts, should be power -14.

Page 313, Allex Colley instead of Alex Colley.

There is a likelihood of a paperback edition of Under the radar. That is great news as the current hardback edition is priced out of the reach of many individuals and is likely to be mainly purchased by libraries.

If there is a paperback version I would like to make a plea to the authors for a couple of minor changes. The inclusion of a chapter on modern ideas and explanations of radiation from the Sun would I think would be most helpful to anyone not in the field, whether an astronomer or a member of the public, to better understand the significance of those early discoveries on solar bursts. The footnotes on every page of the book are highly informative, but if they were transferred to endnotes, the book would appear far less formidable and become much more accessible to a wider range of readers.

In summary – I enjoyed the book, which brings an undeservedly little-known Australian scientist to greater public awareness and is exceptionally informative and comprehensive. My advice to anyone with a possible interest is to borrow the book from a library now or wait and grab the book when it comes out in paperback.

2 responses to ““Under the radar. The first woman in radio astronomy: Ruby Payne-Scott” by WM Goss and Richard X McGee, published by Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2010 – book review

  • As a young boy living across the railway cutting that separated Pott’s Hill Reservoir, from  Regents  Park, we would sometimes play around the field station, which had a receiving antenna, we imagined it as a Radar Station, running close by the field  station was a railway line, by which coal was supplied  to the Potts Hill steam  pumping station.Little did we know that the object of our adventures was reaching out to the universe.     

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