A multi-billion dollar international project to build the world’s most powerful network of radio telescopes might be seem a little extravagant for a birthday present.
The news that the Square Kilometre Array will now proceed as a joint venture between hitherto rival bids from Africa and Australasia has been warmly received by scientific communities in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
That that the announcement was made – almost to the day – one hundred years after the birth of an Australian woman who helped pioneer radio astronomy itself, seems more happy coincidence than cosmic mystery.
The timing does provide an opportunity for Australians to reflect on the life story of visionary physicist, Ruby Violet Payne-Scott.
Ruby’s centenary did not pass unnoticed. Internet behemoth Google paid tribute to Payne-Scott with special artwork – a Google Doodle – celebrating her likeness on their homepage.
However in the country of her birth, the woman credited with a pivotal role in the development of radio astronomy remains a virtual unknown.
Perhaps that’s unsurprising for a nation seemingly more comfortable venerating cricketers and racehorses than recognising a bluestocking, scientist and champion of equal pay whose career was cut short by the chauvinist conventions she so often railed against.
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Born 1912 in the Clarence Valley town of Grafton, Ruby completed her secondary schooling at Sydney Girls High School before winning a scholarship to Sydney University, aged sixteen.
In 1933 she graduated with first-class honours in physics and mathematics, the third female physics graduate in the university’s history.
Following a short research stint at the Cancer Research Institute, Payne-Scott obtained a teacher’s diploma in 1938, a career decision that reflected the limited employment choices for available to women in science and the wider workforce at the time.
The advent of the Second World War changed everything. At home, wartime Australia provided new career opportunities for women, including Payne-Scott.
In 1939 she abandoned teaching and joined electrical manufacturer Australian Wireless Amalgamated (AWA) as a librarian-cum-radio engineer. However it was in 1941 that Payne-Scott won her big break, as a research scientist in the newly established Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (then CSIR) in the division of radio physics.
Her research played a pivotal role in the development of World War II radar. However it was in the later development of radio astronomy that Payne-Scott left her enduring mark.
Radio astronomy pioneer
Under the leadership of the celebrated radio physicist Joesph Pawsey and in collaboration colleagues such as with Lindsay McCready, Marie Coutts Clark and Alec Little, the research of Payne-Scott in the radio physics division led to discoveries in solar radio astronomy.
The group used the principle of a sea-cliff interferometer in which an antenna (actually a WWII radar) observed the sun at sunrise while measuring the interference arising from the direct radiation from the sun and the reflected radiation from the sea.
Pawsey’s group were able to demonstrate that sunspots emit strong radio waves and Payne-Scott herself was credited with the discovery of Type I and III solar bursts. The development of radio interferometry significantly improved the resolution of single radio telescopes.
Another important discovery was the surface temperature of the sun – previously thought to be only 6,000 degrees. Pawsey, McCready and Payne-Scott were able to determine that the temperature of the Sun’s corona was well over a million degrees centigrade.
This ground-breaking work by CSIRO’s radio physics division helped pioneer radio astronomy and over the coming decade, secured Australia’s international scientific reputation.
An active member of the Officers Association – precursor of the CSIRO Staff Association – Ruby Payne-Scott was a fearless advocate for equal pay and the rights of women in the workplace.
In many ways, Ruby’s activism was driven by necessity, a response to the discrimination of the time.
Women were subject to workplace restrictions that are hard to imagine today, following the advent of feminism. Strict rules on deportment, dress and remuneration reflected the patriarchal mores of the day.
Even the prospect of ongoing employment was subject to marriage restrictions – regulations forbade the permanent employment of married women in the Australian Public Service.
As NSW correspondent for the Officer’s Association bulletin, Payne-Scott argued forcefully for equal pay as the issue exploded in 1949. This occurred following a decision to abandon wartime rates (that paid men and women the same,) in favour of a new rate of 75 per cent for female employees.
While women employed during the war won a reprieve from the pay cut (provided they continued to work in the same division doing the same work) the reduced rate applied to all new women employees or those transferring to new positions at CSIRO.
Despite assurances from CSIRO Chairman Ian Clunies-Ross to investigate the equal pay claims of activist like Ruby, the issue remained unresolved and a source of tension between management and female employees for the decades to follow.
Career cut short
Clunies-Ross and Payne-Scott came into further conflict a year later, when CSIRO management discovered that she had been secretly married to WH (Bill) Hall since 1944.
The discovery sparked an administrative battle with management as Payne-Scott fought to protect her permanent, ongoing research position.
Despite her claim to have only kept her marriage a secret as a response in keeping with the ridiculous nature of the sexist restriction, Payne-Scott was demoted to temporary employment status in 1950, lost her employer superannuation contributions and future pension rights.
A year later, following her second pregnancy (having miscarried several years earlier), Payne-Scott resigned from the CSIRO. At the time, the concept of paid maternity leave was merely a dream.
She was 39 years old and her scientific research career was at an end.
On her retirement, Payne-Scott wrote to a colleague:
“I am sorry to give up the research work I have been doing and also to leave the lab where I have been happy and have so many friends. If all goes well I do not expect to be returning to Radiophysics at least for some years.”
Her prediction proved all too accurate. Payne-Scott never returned to the CSIRO. Instead she gave birth to two children, Peter and Fiona, before returning to the classroom in 1963 to teach maths and science.
Payne-Scott retired from teaching in 1974. Sadly, she developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease and died on 25 May 1981, a few days shy of her 69 birthday.
In 2011, the National Archives of Australia (NAA) released Payne-Scott’s ASIO file, which contained allegations that she was a member of the Communist Party.
At the time, ASIO officers were unable to confirm anything other than an association with the Party, a commitment to international co-operation among scientists and to trade unionism.
Today, Ruby’s legacy is remembered in CSIRO by the Payne-Scott awards that bear her name. Importantly, the awards are designed to support the careers of women researchers who take extended leave to care for their newborn children following birth.
- Ruby Payne-Scott at CSIROpedia
- Ruby Payne-Scott, Radio Astronomer – Radio National’s Science Show (transcript)
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