Ruby Payne-Scott, the First Female Radio Astronomer

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By Jeffrey M. Lichtman

While looking over the news headlines on Google this morning, I scrolled down to a heading that caught my eye entitled, Ruby Payne-Scott: the first female radio astronomer (Posted on May 28, 2012 by Gerald Ferreira).

I selected the piece and was blown away! How did this piece of history elude me for so many years? I’m not saying I know everything about Radio Astronomy but this is really something!!

In the article, by Gerald Ferreira as well as Wikipedia, Ruby Violet Payne-Scott, BSc (Phys) MSc DipEd (Syd) (28 May 1912 – 25 May 1981) was an Australian pioneer in radio physics and radio astronomy, and was the first female radio astronomer.

Ruby Payne-Scott was born in Grafton, New South Wales, Australia, on 28 May 1912. She later moved to Sydney to live with her aunt, and completed secondary schooling at Sydney Girls High School.[1]

She won two scholarships to undertake tertiary education at the University of Sydney, where she completed a B.Sc. in Physics in 1933, an M.Sc. in 1936, and a Diploma of Education in 1938.

One of the more outstanding physicists[2] that Australia has ever produced and one of the first people in the world to consider the possibility of radio astronomy, and thereby responsible for what is now a fundamental part of the modern lexicon of science, she was often the only woman in her classes at the University of Sydney.

Her career arguably reached its zenith while working for the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (then called CSIR, now known as CSIRO) at Dover Heights, Hornsby and especially Potts Hill in Sydney. Some of her fundamental contributions to solar radio astronomy came at the end of this period. She is the discoverer of Type I and Type III bursts and participated in the recognition of Type II and IV bursts. Payne-Scott played a major role in the first-ever radio astronomical interferometer observation from 26 January 1946, when the sea-cliff interferometer was used to determine the position and angular size of a solar burst. This observation occurred at either Dover Heights (ex Army shore defense radar) or at Beacon Hill, near Collaroy on Sydney's north shore (ex Royal Australian Air Force surveillance radar establishment - however this radar did not become active until early 1950).

During World War II, she was engaged in top secret work investigating radar. She was the expert on the detection of aircraft using PPI (Plan Position Indicator) displays. She was also at the time a member of the Communist Party and an early advocate for women's rights. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) was interested in Payne-Scott and had a substantial file on her activities, with some distortions.


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