I’ve always been fascinated by outer space. It’s so easy to feel small and almost lost in the vastness of the universe when you stop and think about just how big it really is. (Although I’m reminded of a Neil deGrasse Tyson quote that advises otherwise: “I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe; we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” But I digress.)
One reason why we know just how vast the universe is is through science (duh) – or more specifically, radio astronomy. Radio astronomy is the study of the “invisible universe,” or the electromagnetic radiation emitted by celestial objects that are invisible to the naked eye. Using techniques of radio astronomy, astronomers can observe the thermal radiation that fills the observable universe known as cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). It’s a mouthful, I know. But what’s so important about CMBR? It’s the remnant radiation left over from an early stage of the universe’s development, and is the best evidence available for the Big Bang Theory, aka the account of the birth of the universe. Pretty heavy stuff, right? Radio astronomy is also used to probe and examine areas of space where visible light can’t reach, like the center of the Milky Way and the dust-enveloped environments in which stars are born.
So what does radio astronomy have to do with BUST (aside from being really cool)? I present to you Ruby Payne-Scott, radiophysics pioneer and the first female radioastronomer. Born in Australia in 1912 (yesterday would have been her 100th birthday), she graduated from the University of Sydney with top honors, and was the third woman to graduate from there with a degree in physics. This was at a time where many universities didn’t offer math and sciences for women, and there was a paucity of jobs for them in those fields. Science historian Claire Hooker points out the degree of Payne-scott’s intellect,
“One reason for why women didn’t do physics in those days is because they couldn’t see a reason to. Where would you expect to work? You could possibly get a job teaching but if no girls schools are teaching physics, then you can’t even get a job doing that. Companies almost never hired women and Ruby graduated in the Depression when there were no jobs for anyone, and where giving a job to a woman over a man who might have to support a family would have been unthinkable. So it is a testimony to the excellence of her scholastic achievements that when she graduated she was immediately hired as a physicist on the University’s very new cancer research project.”
That project was shut down in 1935, and Payne-Scott taught for a while until she got a job with the Australian Wireless Amalgamated to do research. She was the first woman hired to work for them in a research capacity, and started out there as a librarian, but parlayed the position into eventually conducting her own physics research on a full-time scale.
With Australia’s involvement in WWII (and with the advent of WWII in general), radar became an incredibly hot topic in the discourse of war. The term “radio physics” was used as a codename to throw off enemy spies for top-secret research about radar. Physicists were recruited to research further, and when two men dropped out of the research team Payne-Scott (and another woman, Joan Freeman, who went on to become a notable nuclear physicist in her own right) were selected to fill their spots. (Below is her letter of application, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.)
During her wartime researching, Payne-Scott became an informal advocate for women’s workplace rights. Women in the research facility were not allowed to smoke, nor were they allowed to wear shorts, even though the hot and stuffy buildings had no air conditioning. Men, of course, were permitted to do both. Miller Goss, who has extensively researched the life of Payne-Scott, notes,
“Ruby and Joan Freeman, they went along to the interview. Joan Freeman was a bit intimidated at the interview but Ruby apparently went into the interview smoking a cigarette just to show that this was nonsense, that this was completely unfair…They said: You’re not allowed to wear shorts, you have to wear a dress or a skirt. Ruby said: Well, this is absurd. We’re climbing up on ladders, up on aerials every day. I’m not going up on a ladder with a skirt on. The shorts are much better attire for us. But in fact, in a serious way she really was an early advocate for women’s rights in the work place, well before her time.”
During her time with Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), she made some of her most notable scientific breakthroughs. She was able to deduce that auroras occurred on the earth after intense outbursts from the Sun, which was evidence that showed that the particles moved out from the Sun and became involved in the Earth’s magnetic field. With colleagues Joe Pawsey and Lindsey McCready, she worked out that the temperature of the Sun’s corona is over a million degrees, which was an incredible figure compared to the accepted 6000 degrees at the time.
Although she received equal pay during the war, her salary shrunk after it. Ever the proto-workplace equality advocate, she rallied for equal pay, and got it. She continued to work for CSIRO and got married in secret, as the Commonwealth prohibited married women from working in public service. She lost her permanent position in CSIRO, and had a very hostile written exchange with the CSIRO chairman regarding the status of married women. She wrote, “All the married women research officers I have met feel that their classification as ‘temporary’ puts them at a considerable psychological disadvantage in their work.”
Though she no longer was a permanent staffer (and lost her superannuation because of her letters), she was able to maintain a respectable salary. As maternity leave didn’t exist back then, she retired in 1951, after the birth of her first child. She passed away in 1981 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but her familial legacy is strong: her son, Peter Hall, is a respected mathematician who works with theoretical statistics and probability theory, and her daughter, Fiona Margaret Hall, is a prominent artist in Australia. (Payne-Scott was also honored with the above Google doodle yesterday! I approve, Google.)
(Images via Wikimedia Commons, the National Archives of Australia, Google)