Contributions of Women to the field of Astrophysics and Astronomy

Photo by Peter Hall (Ruby Payne-Scott’s son)

This article concludes our three-part series. If you have been following the series, one common theme becomes overwhelmingly apparent: that each of these women has made incredible contributions to the fields of astronomy, and they all did so in the face of stereotypes, sexism, and other biases. These women have proved that the prejudices have nothing to do with cognitive capabilities, but are instead about consistent, deeply entrenched stereotypes. Even individuals who are outspoken about gender inequality and stereotypes can still hold biased beliefs on an unconscious level. In many cases an unconscious belief, or implicit biases, can be more powerful than explicitly held ones, for the simple fact that they are not aware of it. We need to raise awareness about stereotypes and continue to promote a growth-mindset environment while simultaneously empowering girls by creating supportive educational environments, and actively recruiting them in STEM fields. I hope this series has helped to shine light on the challenges women have faced, and will continue to encourage dialogue on the issue. Only then can we can start to explore and find solutions.

In our second part of the series, we covered Nancy Grace Roman, the ground-breaking astronomer and NASA executive who fought diligently as an advocate for the Hubble Space Telescope. Roman passed away on December 25, 2018, at the age of 93. It can be argued that the Hubble Space Telescope has been one of the most successful and influential endeavors of twentieth century, into the twenty-first. Its photos are simply breathtaking and unimaginable. It gives us a perspective and a picture of our beautiful universe as never before. Thank you, Nancy Grace Roman. Rest in peace.

Part III: Ruby Payne-Scott

Imagine becoming one of the first women in a new field of science whose applications were yet to be truly explored. Furthermore, in this new career you are one of two women working on a top-secret mission to enable systems to track enemy fighter planes. During your time at this job, you helped in the development of radar, as well as solar astronomy. Within four years, you are the chief engineer and make monumental contributions to advance radio astronomy and interferometer exploration, becoming a pioneer of solar astronomy, and laying the foundation for future research. Three short years later your career is over, for no other reason than you are a woman and you chose to get married. This is the story of Ruby Payne-Scott and her endeavor to become the world’s first woman radio astronomer.

Ruby Violet Payne-Scott was born in 1912 in Grafton, New South Wales.  Ruby attended the Sydney Girls High School (known for its university prep focus), where her love of science and math began to emerge. She excelled in both subjects, and graduated early at age 16. Because of her high marks and demonstrated academic brilliance, she was awarded two merit scholarships and began studying at the University of Sydney. Ruby would graduate with honors and continue her studies, earning a Masters in Physics (Ph.D.s were not yet offered at Australian schools), at that time one of only three women from Australia to do so.

Following graduation Ruby took a job at the Cancer Research Committee (CRC) where she could apply her knowledge of physics. But not long after her arrival, the research project was closed down. Jobs for women in physics were scarce, so, overachiever and hard worker that Ruby was, she returned to school to earn another degree, in education. From 1938 to 1939 she taught science at the Woodlands Church of England Girls Grammar School, before leaving to work at Amalgamated Wireless Australia, an electronics manufacturing company and broadcaster, that ran all the wireless services in Australia. Ruby started as a librarian, then was the first woman they hired as a researcher. Not surprisingly, with her strong math and physics background, and particular skillfulness in electrical engineering, she was quickly promoted to head of the measurement laboratory. In the background to her post-graduate employment, the world was on the brink of war.

Although World War II wrought some of the worst destruction the world had ever seen, technological breakthroughs and developments accelerated science progress by leaps and bounds. One of those developments helped the Allied forces win the war. Radar was invented and was widely used in the fronts of Europe, but when Australia and other southern hemisphere countries entered the war something peculiar was happening — radar wasn’t working.

With the islands of Japan just an arm’s-length from the border, Australia needed to protect itself in the event of an attack. Men were enlisting mostly to fight on the lines, but women could also serve a role. The Australian government knew this, so women were recruited and actively engaged to take on roles including that of radar operators. Six hundred women were hired; they outperformed men in the same job. One of those women was Ruby Payne-Scott.

In 1941, two years after the start of the war, Ruby applied for a position as a research scientist for the recently formed Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in the Radio Physics Laboratory (RPL). The name was intentionally vague to keep secret the research that actually was using a new defensive weapon, radar. Ruby began working on Australia’s radar non-communication problem and quickly realized that the issue was due to the Pacific’s tropical weather. She had a niche and rich understanding of not only mechanics and engineering but also the physics behind them, that made her stand out from others. Her solution was to invent a device, called an S-band noise tube, that could track and measure the fluctuations of incoming signals from receivers. Prior to Ruby’s invention, soldiers could spot incoming enemy by using only binoculars or the naked eye. But thanks to Ruby’s S-band noise tube, the enemy could not only be tracked from greater distances, but it worked so well that she could distinguish an enemy Japanese aircraft from non-threatening sources like boats, mountains and cliffs, radio static, infrastructure, and buildings, even at night and during stormy weather!

By now Ruby had gained a lot of attention largely thanks to her work on radar and her research on accurate measurements of small-signal receiver noise. The war was ending, and Ruby along with many others began looking for post-war careers. During the war, while Ruby had been working on radar, on the other side of the globe, in Great Britain, James Stanley Hey, a physicist and radio astronomer, had been working on radar anti-jamming methods. He wrote a classified report on extra-terrestrial radio signals — a previously unimaginable phenomenon — and mysterious noise that could be detected, but whose source was unknown. Only a select few scientists, including Payne-Scott, would get to read that paper.

After reading it, Ruby was inspired and knew she was up for the challenge of uncovering what mystery noise was.  In the next few years, she would make extraordinary contributions to the scientific community. Her work would help establish a new field of science that we now call radio astronomy. Ruby and a number of her colleagues formed a team that would begin to survey the cosmic noise that was being heard in the radio signals described in Hey’s classified report. Between 1945 and 1947 the team would conduct the first radio astronomy experiment in the southern hemisphere. They found that the noise was emanating largely from two sources: the sun and nebulae. Ruby’s research helped reveal not only the discovery of three out of the five types of solar bursts, but also that there was a pattern between the signals and sunspots. Furthermore, Ruby found that if a radio telescope is pointed to the sky, the radio “brightness” can be summarized mathematically in a two-dimensional sum of infinite simple waveform series of different frequencies known as the “Fourier Components” of the distribution. These components could be then be computed by performing a “Fourier Transform.” In August 1947 the work was published and became the foundation of future research in radio astronomy. This method helped provide a full picture to astronomers of the different waves emanating from the sky; the same method used later by 1974 Nobel Physics Prize winner Martin Ryle.

Photo by Jessica Chapman

During this time women’s rights were hardly mentioned; women often faced discriminatory practices. Ruby was always known for her confidence and carried herself in a very capable manner. Her husband encouraged her self-confidence, and together they would go on bushwalks and work on renovating their home. She leaned strongly to the political left, and was a member of the Communist Party of Australia. When faced with disparity or inequality she would confront it. When it came to women’s rights, Ruby was not backing down. For example, the rule was that men could smoke at work but women could not. When this came up, Ruby apparently lit a cigarette, put it in her mouth, and walked into the interview smoking just to show how outlandish the rule really was. Another case was the unfair dress code. Men could wear shorts but women could not. When brought to the Ruby’s attention, she is quoted saying: “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.” She also went on to fight for equal wages and pay for women, but there was one inequality that would later force Ruby into leaving her career. In 1944 Ruby secretly married William Holman Hall. The marriage was kept secret because at the time the government had legislation for a marriage bar which stated that married women could not work in permanent public positions, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1966. That meant that Ruby should have resigned the day she was married. Ruby’s secret was uncovered during a routine department survey. Despite making life-saving contributions to our country during the war, and helping to launch a new field of astronomy, she was fired, her pension revoked and interest on her retirement payments reclaimed, all because she chose to get married.

Ruby would attempt to challenge the rule but ultimately gave up. Eventually, she was re-hired on temporary status, but after a year she decided to leave entirely. Four months later she bore her first child, Peter Gaven Hall, who like his mother would work in the STEM fields, becoming a prominent statistician. In 1953, Ruby’s daughter Fiona Margaret Hall was born, today an Australian artist.

Payne would never go back to work; she lived the rest of her days in the suburbs of Sydney. In May 1981 she passed away from dementia complications.