I had an opportunity last week to listen to two separate talks about two of the most influential radio astronomers in Australia. The talks were given by Dr. Miller Goss, the former director of the Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico, and who still works for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). One was a public lecture at Curtin University, while the other was a Summer Lecture held at the grounds of the Perth Observatory. The latter was in fact held outdoors, under the evening sky, with a magnificent view of the Milky Way overhead – it was indeed a unique but nevertheless ideal place for having an astronomy lecture!
Dr. Miller has in the last couple of years been busy doing some research about the history of radio astronomy, and is seen to be an expert on the lives of the pioneers in radio astronomy. In fact, he knew many of them personally, and made several visits to their families to attempt to uncover more about the lives of these fascinating people.
The first lecture was about Joseph Pawsey, the father of radio astronomy in Australia. Being a physicist working on radar technology during wartime, Joe Pawsey was highly instrumental in redirecting the research efforts of Australian physicists and electrical engineers (mainly from the Radiophysics group in the University of Sydney) towards radio astronomy in the post WWII era. He became then one of the pioneers of radio astronomy in Australia, making important developments in the area of interferometry and aperture synthesis (basically the technique of combining lots of radio telescopes to form a single large telescope with a much higher resolution and sensitivity than each single telescope). He was appointed the director of NRAO, but was diagnosed with brain tumour and tragically died not long after he took office. The Pawsey High-Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science under construction across the road from where I work was named in his honour.
The second lecture was on Ruby Payne Scott, a brilliant physicist, who became the first woman radio astronomer in the world. As part of Joe Pawsey’s group she played a crucial role in the early development of radio astronomy in Australia as well. She made important contributions to the field of solar physics, detecting the brightest ever astronomical radio signal ever observed in the history of radio astronomy – the most powerful of solar flares. This was in spite of the countless obstacles faced as a working woman in that era. In fact, she was well known for speaking up for women’s rights. Her marriage and motherhood became highly controversial issues that would eventually result in an early end to her career. One wonders how different Australian astronomy would have been if she had continued in her role much longer.
Miller Goss ended his talk on Joe Pawsey by reminding the audience (most of us were radio astronomers anyway!) that we all stood on the shoulders of giants. Without the likes of Pawsey and Payne-Scott, Australian astronomy, and even science in general, would not be what it is now. Today, Australia remains one of the key players in world radio astronomy, largely due to the strong foundations laid by Pawsey and Payne-Scott. With projects like the ASKAP and SKA (hopefully) coming up in the next decade or so, Australian dominance in the field is set to continue. And we are all beneficiaries of their legacy. Indeed, we stand on the shoulders of giants…