April 21, 2019

Review: Under the Radar by W.M. Goss & Richard X. McGee.

Out from Springer Press!

Among the well known personalities of science there lies those who have labored quietly but have an equally interesting story to tell. This week, we take a look at Under the Radar, a biography of the first woman in radio astronomy, Ruby Payne-Scott out from Springer Press. Payne-Scott was born 1912 in New South Wales, and like many of her era, found that the advent of World War II enabled her to seek out positions formerly closed off to women. After the war, she secured a prominent position with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). She managed to get into radio astronomy in its infancy, working at some of the earliest radar sites that were just turning to post war astronomy at Potts Hill, Hornsby and Dover Heights. These were and are today in some very austere locations, and Ruby made good use of her bush-walking skills, tirelessly repairing and utilizing these early antennas throughout Australia. It was even interesting to note how often these sites were deliberately vandalized in the book, and how little, if ever, Ruby complained about her assigned tasks.

Though politically outspoken, Payne-Scott was also a first rate scientist, and one that also turned back to teaching in her later years. Most significantly, she was directly involved with some of the first ever analysis of radio outbursts linked to solar flare activity first recorded in 1946 from the Dover Height sea-cliff interferometer. Itís interesting to note some of the future discoveries, such as the Cosmic Microwave Background and pulsars that they were moving toward in hindsight, but nevertheless laid the ground work for.

The book also tells the tale of Payne-Scottís role as an early advocate for womenís rights. As a professional female scientist, Ruby was not allowed to publicly declare her marriage and still continue her line of work. Although known to her close friends, this led to her resignation from the CSIRO in 1951 under a change of new management. Payne-Scottís politics as a member of the Communist Party of Australia (she was referred to as ďRed RubyĒ behind her back) didnít endear her to many. Still, her tireless fortitude and motivation made her a first rate scientist, one who helped move the field of radio astronomy and interferometry into the diverse endeavor of today. An interesting anecdote: It is telling that many of the existing photos of the Payne-Scott show her eating, and itís mentioned by the book that she may have had a habit of doing this as a form of efficiency! Certainly, thatís a mark of someone whose life was perpetually in motion!

Unfortunately, Ruby-Payne Scott succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimerís and passed away way too early on May 25, 1981 just three days before her 69th birthday. She would have been 100 next month. The book Under the Radar is a much deserved look at her life and times, and is an extremely through look at her background, her family, and the astronomy and physics involved in her research, definitely one worth searching out!

Next Week: We review the latest from Neil Degrasse Tyson with his newest book, The Space Chronicles!


  1. [...] Way galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Just over a decade later, Australian radio astronomer Ruby Payne-Scott pioneered solar radio astronomy at the end of World War II, making the first ever observations of [...]

  2. [...] Way galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Just over a decade later, Australian radio astronomer Ruby Payne-Scott pioneered solar radio astronomy at the end of World War II, making the first ever observations of [...]

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