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Ruby Payne-Scott


By Kristy Dyer

January 2000

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” (Home, 1988).


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.

 

REFERENCES

Hey, J.S. (1973), The Evolution of Radio Astronomy.

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.

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