Making Waves: The First Woman Radio Astronomer (Review)

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It takes a special kind of person to be a pioneer of a new scientific field. Sometimes, though, the stories of these people take years, even decades, to come to the surface. That is why I am so pleased to read the new book about the first woman radio astronomer called “Making Waves – The Story of Ruby Payne-Scott: Australian Pioneer Radio Astronomer.”

This new book is the fruit of the historical research of another radio astronomer, W.M. Goss, into the life and work of this amazing woman. Goss first heard about Ruby from her former colleagues when he was a visiting astronomer in Australia. They spoke of her talents and intellect with such admiration to pique his interest, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that he could start his historical research in earnest.

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I was a summer student at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in 2004 when I first heard Goss speak about Ruby Payne-Scott while he was in the midst of his research into her life. She was the first woman radio astronomer in the world, and among the pioneers of the field in post-World War II era when governments turned their wartime radar over to peaceful scientific explorations. And yet, her name was little known in the community today, save for the new work that was coming out.

“Making Waves” gives a detailed description of Ruby Payne-Scott’s work in Australia, as well as the battles she fought to maintain her position. Her immediate colleagues usually recognized her brilliance, but there were still conflicts between this outspoken scientist and her co-workers. She fought an inherently sexist employment system, hiding her marriage for several years lest she be laid off, as a married woman was not even allowed a full-time position. She eventually lost her full-time status when her marriage was discovered, and finally left radio astronomy altogether when she became pregnant with her first child, as there was no such thing as maternity leave.

In her short tenure as a working scientist, Ruby Payne-Scott was among the first to study and characterize solar radio bursts, a part of the phenomena that we closely watch on the active sun today. She used a sea-cliff interferometer to determine that the flares did indeed coincide with massive sunspots. She later mathematically described a type of radio interferometry that is in use all over the world today at places such as the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array or the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA).

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Ruby also worked for some time as a science teacher, first a short stint in the late 30s as a well-loved science teacher at a girls’ school, and then again for a decade in the late 60s-early 70s at another girls’ school as a science and mathematics teacher. Her colleagues at the latter job did not know of her scientific work, but she helped set up their science laboratories. Sadly, at that time, her mental facilities began to deteriorate as she began to develop Alzheimer’s disease. She died at the age of 69 in 1981 under the care of her loving husband, Bill Hall.

Goss’s book is chock-full of well-researched information on Ruby’s early life and career, as well as an introduction to the field of radio astronomy and specifically solar radio astronomy. The reader will learn some science as well as history, specifically the history of the early days of Australian radio astronomy, of which Ruby was just one player. We also get a glimpse of her family life, complete with photographs, from her two children who were interviewed extensively: mathematician Peter Hall and artist Fiona Hall. We can only speculate about those things that were not written in memos and documents and letters, but even then, the memories and stories and impressions by her colleagues and family can help to fill that gap.

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Ruby Payne-Scott’s story is beginning to reach out, however, as evidenced by a Google Doodle dedicated to her on what would have been her 100th birthday by Google Australia. With the work of Goss and others, this remarkable woman’s story has come to light to let us reflect upon a time when every observation held the promise of great discovery, as a reminder of the struggles faced by women scientists in a time when they were so few, and as a celebration of one bright mind that gave us so much.

You can also see a Google Hangout about Ruby Payne-Scott and this book with author Miller Goss, hosted by Nicole Gugliucci on YouTube.