By Kristy Dyer
Kristy Dyer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Physics Department at North Carolina
State University, working on supernova remnants and shock excitation.
THE FIRST WOMAN radio astronomer was
an Australian, Ruby Payne-Scott. She worked
on solar observations in the early history of
the field with Joe Pawsey, A.G. Little, L.L.
McCready and D. E. Yabsley, and J. Bolton.
Ruby Violet Payne-Scott was born in 1912 in
Grafton, New South Wales. In 1933 she received a
Bachelors of Science first class, with honors in math
and physics, from Sydney University. She received a
scholarship and obtained her teaching certification.
In 1936 she finished a Masters in Physics (Ph.D.'s
were not offered at Australian universities at the
time). She was only the fourth or fifth woman in
Australia to get an advanced degree in physics.
From 1936–1940 she conducted medical
research in cancer radiology and worked for
Amalgamated Wireless Australia. In 1941 Payne-
Scott went to work for CSIRO as an Assistant
Research Officer, working in the classified
Radiophysics division on the war effort. “She
soon became known around RP for her considerable
intellectual and technical prowess, forthright
personality and ‘bushwalking’ advocation”
In March and April of 1944, Payne-Scott and
Pawsey hung an aerial horn operating at 10 cm
wavelength out the
window of their lab,
trying to detect “cosmic
static.” Their receiver
had a temperature of
3500 K, too high to
detect radiation from
the Milky Way.
However they should have been able to detect the
sun (J.S. Hey had published a classified document in
England on “Metre-wave Radiation from the Sun”
in 1942), but their notes merely state they did not
attempt to measure solar radiation. According to
coworkers, the team had an efficient division of
labor: McCready built the equipment, Pawsey was
the supervisor and Payne-Scott was responsible for
the mathematics and analysis of the data.
Ruby Payne-Scott (far right) and her "Bushwalking Club"
It is worth noting that Australian radio astronomy
suffered from isolation both during and after
the war. Australian journals were not widely read
and there were great delays in publishing in British
journals and research carried out by Martin Ryle's
group in England was often in direct competition
with Pawsey's group.
As a result, Hey (1973) credits McCready,
Pawsey and Payne-Scott with being the first to relate
solar radio emission to sunspots (“Solar radiation at
radio frequencies and its relation to sunspots,”
Procedures of the Royal Society, 1947, McCready,
Pawsey and Payne-Scott) although Ryle and
Vonberg's work was published earlier, in 1946. The
Pawsey group used a “Lloyd's Mirror” — a cliff-side
telescope that used reflections off the surface of the
sea to create an interferometer. The paper contains
a digression with far-reaching implications: “It is
possible in principle to determine the actual form of
the distribution in a complex case by Fourier synthesis
by using information derived from a large
number of components.” This was probably the
first mention of Fourier synthesis in the context of
radio astronomy. She goes on to comment that since
it was not practical to vary the height of the cliff, in
principal one could vary the frequency — in anticipation
of multifrequency synthesis.
Payne-Scott was one of the few women scientists
working for Radiophysics, a position not without
incident. The National Standards Lab librarian
scheduled a meeting to take the women to task for
inappropriate behavior: smoking and wearing
shorts. While Joan Freeman (the smoker) refused to
attend, Payne-Scott changed into shorts for the purpose
of the meeting. Not long after, the librarian
was replaced with a more enlightened one.
Later Payne-Scott moved to the Potts Hill site
where she worked with Little on developing a new
interferometer and using it to observe solar noise
storms and outbursts. Paul Wild, in The Australian
Physicist (5, 117, 1968), described the experiment:“… another Pawsey-inspired experiment was put
into operation and brilliantly performed by Payne-
Scott and Little.”
At the time, the Commonwealth Civil Service
had a policy that women could not hold a permanent
appointment and be married. Ruby Payne-
Scott had quietly married William H. Hall in 1944.
She wrote a letter to protest the policy (not mentioning
her own marriage) in which she expressed
the opinion that the marital status of employees was
not the government's business. However in 1950,
pending the birth of her first child, Payne-Scott
resigned her job for “personal” reasons. She
returned briefly in 1952 to attend URSI General
Assembly, where she appeared in the front row of
the conference photo.
She went on to raise two children and teach school,
staying active in the Sidney Bushwalking Club. By the 1970s Payne-Scott was debilitated by Alzheimer's, and
died in 1981, close to her 69th birthday.
Ruby Payne-Scott worked only nine years in
radio astronomy from 1941 to 1950. “And sadly, so
ended Ruby's contributions to radio astronomy, her
papers seemed to be so full of points and suggestions
that were able to be developed and become
outstanding discoveries in later solar papers from
the Radiophysics Laboratory and elsewhere”
(Richard McGee, private communication).
Thanks to Miller Goss (NRAO) and Richard
McGee (CSIRO) for their research on Ruby Payne-
Scott. We look forward to a possible book.
Hey, J.S. (1973), The Evolution of Radio
Home, R.W. (1988), Australian Science in the
Making. Chapter 13 "Australian radio astronomy"
Woodruff T. Sullivan, III.
Freeman, J. (1991), A Passion for Physics: The
Story of a Woman Physicist.
Back to January 2000 Contents
Back to STATUS Table of Contents