Ruby Payne-Scott stood out in the crowd

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) maintains a rich and lively online presence, and one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from its archives is Ruby Payne-Scott.

The CSIRO describes her “remarkable career” as a radio astronomer, noting a 1941 “kind of memorandom” on her as a probationary employee from her boss, the respected administrator Edward George (Taffy) Bowen: “Well, she’s a bit loud and we don’t think she’s quite what we want and she may be a bit unstable, but we’ll let her continue and see how she works out.”

Some of Bowen’s comments might have come from Payne-Scott’s left-wing political views, and her reputation as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in the workplace, but one would have to say, she worked out quite well.

The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers says she was “the first woman radio astronomer and a pioneer in solar radio astronomy in Australia. She played a key role in the early development of radio astronomy in the 1940s and the introduction of new techniques in the study of the universe.”

The CSIRO also notes that “in a remarkably short period, Payne-Scott played a key role in the rapid growth of radio astronomy in the immediate postwar environment”.

“She provided scientific leadership in this period as well as technical insights,” it continues. “In the seven years as a radio astronomer (1944-51), she made monumental contributions to this new science in which Australia excelled and helped lay the foundations for many future decades of world leadership in radio astronomy.”

That part about “in a remarkably short period” is also important in telling Payne-Scott’s story.

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Credit: Peter Gavin Hall

This “remarkable career” was curtailed in 1950 when it was discovered that she had been secretly married since 1944, to William Hall. Married women were forbidden from holding permanent positions in the public service.

A New York Times article (actually a delayed obituary as part of its “Overlooked No More” series) she was forced to resign from her position and to give up her pension, but her expertise was so highly valued, she was talked into continuing to work, although on a temporary basis.

A year later she became pregnant and stopped work in order to care for her child. “With no maternity leave, there was no choice,” says the CSIRO.

She hadn’t yet turned 40.

Born in Grafton, in northern NSW, on 28 May 1912, Payne-Scott graduated at 16 from Sydney Girls High School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Sydney – only the third woman to do so.

From 1936-38 she worked as a physicist at the University, where, says the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “her research concentrated on a recently discovered cancer treatment, radiation”.

In 1939 she was hired as a librarian with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd in Sydney, but in 1941, with the vortex of World War II pulling in people from around the globe, her academic background paid off when the division of radio physics of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the precursor to CSIRO) hired her to find ways in which radar systems could be improved in the tracking of Japanese warplanes.

As the conflict was winding down, Payne-Scott and her colleagues began looking for postwar applications for their research. What they came up with was a new field of study called radio astronomy.

Beginning in 1944, she took part in groundbreaking radio astronomy research, making “major contributions to the techniques of radio astronomy”, including some of the key early solar radio astronomy observations.

In 1948, the CSIRO says, she “led the research on the design, construction and use of the ‘swept lobe’ interferometer, which in 1948-49 enabled her team to image the Sun 25 times a second; thus a movie was constructed that allowed the observer to follow the time evolution of the solar outbursts of Type IV.”

This work “predicted the whole future of radio astronomy”, says her biographer, Miller Goss, astronomer emeritus at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory and author of the book Under the Radar: The First Woman in Radio Astronomy.

And then things were put on hold. Having retired from scientific research, Payne-Scott and Hall settled in Sydney, where she stayed home with their two children: Peter, who became a mathematician and professor at the University of Melbourne, and Fiona, a well-known artist.

In 1963 Payne-Scott went back to work teaching maths and sciences, until she retired in 1974. She died on 25 May 1981, in Sydney.

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