We Australians excel at remembering and celebrating our sporting heroes, from cricketers to particularly successful race horses, but are not so good at celebrating the great people who helped build our civilization, particularly when those builders are Australian. Today, I want to celebrate the birthday of a brilliant Australian scientist, Ruby Payne-Scott.
Ruby Payne-Scott is remembered as one of Australia’s most outstanding physicists. As well as contributing to other sciences, she was a pioneer of radio astronomy and made major discoveries about the nature of radio emissions from the Sun. Payne-Scott also has the distinction of being the first female radio astronomer.
Early life and education
Ruby was born in 1912 in the town of Grafton, NSW. She demonstrated remarkable talent at school and moved to live with her aunt in Sydney, where she could get a better education. She was awarded honours in mathematics and botany, and won two scholarships to the University of Sydney where she studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and botany. As was typical of the era, Ruby was often the only woman in her classes.
Despite the prejudice and difficulty in getting a job that female physicists faced at the time (compounded by the Great Depression), Ruby’s excellent academic performance landed her a job as a physicist on the University of Sydney’s new cancer research project. One project she worked on was to determine the effect that the Earth’s magnetic field had on the vital processes of living beings. Working with William Love she cultivated chick embryos in magnetic fields up to 5000 times stronger than the Earth’s field. They found no observable differences in the chicks and determined that the magnetism of the Earth had little or no effect on living creatures.
The cancer research project closed down in 1935, and Ruby was forced to take one of the few career options open to educated women at the time, teaching. She completed a diploma of teaching and started working at a school in South Australia. Ruby was constantly alert for ways to get back into physics and eventually managed to land a job with Australian Wireless Amalgamated, a major hirer of physicists. Although she was hired as a librarian, Ruby managed to get involved in some research projects in the company’s standards laboratory and eventually worked her way into full-time research.
In 1939, Australia, following Britain’s lead, declared war on Germany. The CSIR (the precursor to the CSIRO) was charged with developing an Australian radar capability. As happened in Britain and the USA, mobilization for war created a shortage of trained men and provided women with the opportunity to break into jobs and careers they were previously bared from. Ruby and another woman, Joan Freeman, managed to get hired to work as researchers in the CSIR’s new Radiophysics laboratory. The women excelled in their roles, under the leadership of another great Australian physicist, Joe Pawsey, and both Ruby and Joan later commented that their colleagues treated them as “one of the boys”. The two women mainly had to deal with discrimination from administrators and petty bureaucrats who imposed absurd and unfair rules such as banning women from smoking or wearing shorts, rules which Ruby took the lead in breaking. Ruby even married her Husband, Bill Holman Hall, in secret in 1944 because married women were not allowed to hold permanent positions in government agencies.
Wartime radar research in Britain had discovered that the Sun occasionally produced significant amounts of radio waves. Excited by this, in their spare time Ruby and Joe Pawsey ran some experiments to follow up on this discovery, but did not have the right equipment to make the observations. When the war ended the Radio Physics laboratory was due to be scrapped, so the team put together an application to continue as a radio physics research division, concentrating on rain making and radio astronomy. At the time, radio astronomy was a very new field of research and the astronomy community showed very little interest. Despite this, the CSIR decided to fund radio physics and Australia remains a world leader in radio astronomy to this day.
Along with Joe Pawsey and Lindsay McCready, Payne-Scott used decommissioned radar equipment to make detailed radio-frequency observations of the Sun. This small team was the first to construct a radio-astronomy interferometer. Radio interferometers greatly increase the resolution of their observations by using a long baseline between two or more radio antennas. The CSIR team managed to construct an interferometer using only one antenna.
The radar antenna they were using was a coastal installation mounted on a sea-cliff. The antenna received radio signals directly from the Sun but also from reflections off the sea below. This simulated a baseline of around 200 metres between two antennas and allowed Payne-Scott, Pawsey and McCready to determine that solar radio radiation was coming from patches of the Sun that had sun-spots, a major discovery that boosted Australia’s international scientific reputation. The team also showed that the Sun’s corona has a temperature of over a million degrees centigrade, a phenomenon that remains a mystery to astrophysicists. Payne-Scott is also credited with the discovery of type I and type III solar outbursts.
Workplace activist and career cut short
Throughout her time at the CSIR and its successor the CSIRO, Payne-Scott was an active advocate of equal rights and pay for women. She fearlessly and vocally opposed women’s workplace restrictions and pay reductions, clashing with CSIRO chairman Sir Ian Clunies Ross on several occasions. Eventually her secret marriage was discovered by CSIRO administrators and she was demoted to a temporary position. Payne-Scott left the CSIRO for good in 1951 (aged 39) to give birth to her son Peter.
Payne-Scott had a second child, a daughter named Fiona, and in 1963 returned to teaching. She retired in 1974 and died in 1981 at the age of 69.
Today, Ruby’s legacy is remembered in the CSIRO by the Payne-Scott award which is given to support the careers of women researchers. Her influence on radio astronomy and her discoveries means that her name is known by a large section of the Australian astronomy community, though they may not be completely aware of how hard Ruby had to fight to be able to do her ground-breaking research.
In 2012, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Ruby Payne-Scott was celebrated with a Google doodle. However, this great Australian is still completely unknown to the majority of Australian people. Ruby, her research, and her fight for women’s rights deserves greater recognition.