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Winning the Nobel Prize


How radio astronomy has changed
Antony Hewish Astronomer
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Radio astronomy in those days was a very, very different game altogether and you were able to design equipment, get the funding for it and start building, you know, within 12 months. And if you had a good track record in research, you were able to get the funding through the Government, the… what was then called the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. There was a committee to look into these things but it was obviously a friendly committee who knew just what you were doing and what you’d done in the past. And if what you were doing was sensible, you got the money rapidly. And Martin Ryle was able to get funding for his large instruments, which would cost millions of pounds if you built them today, relatively quickly, and it was just a totally different world. When I later came to build my 4-acre antenna which discovered the pulsars, I only had to wait 3 or 4 months to get the funding for that. If that was to be built now, well, it would cost about a million pounds to build that and I would have to go through international committees to get that sort of money. I would have Americans who didn’t understand what I was doing trying to… being critical of what I was about to do and say, what a crazy thing, I don’t think Tony Hewish should do that. It was such a different world then, you could just… if you… if you had a good track record you got… you got the cash and could… could get on with it. And… I’m luckily not involved now, but these committees have become international and, if you’re starting out in research, you become part of a team rather than your own master and you just can’t get on exactly with what you want to do. You can have the ideas, but that has to be developed and worked on, and you have to write and approach committees and sell yourself in a very big way. And things just take that much longer. Of course, if you’re building the instruments, as people are, projects have to become international because they can’t be afforded by a single country, and I watch this thing from a distance now and look back to those… what I regard really as the happier times long, long ago when you… when you didn’t have to be a politician really, as well as a scientist. You could, if you were a scientist people knew about you, and if you were a reliable one you got your cash and if you… if you weren’t you didn’t. And it… it was just a totally different… different game; you weren’t criticised by… by foreign committees. When I say foreign, I mean European or American, I don’t use… I use that word perhaps in a rather wrong way. But that is the way science goes, unfortunately, and to be a graduate student, really, I think isn’t… isn’t so much fun. You’re doing something that’s immensely worthwhile but you’re part of a larger team doing your own little bit. But it’s… it’s much more like being a member of a large crew and doing what you can do, rather than being in control. And that is, I think, a bit sad. I mean, you… young people learn to accept this… this way of doing things and, if it’s a really good idea that you’re following, you’re prepared to fight for it and persuade other people. And I suppose that, in its way, is very good practical experience if you’re a scientist but, for example, with the Square Kilometre Array, which is rather like the antenna that I built years and years ago but covering a square kilometre and much more advanced technology and much more computing, that is going to cost billions. And if you’re working on that, you can’t expect results for a decade or so. And, in a way, I find that a bit depressing.

But if science is going to advance, and I can see now in the world of… of pulsars what a wonderful instrument the Square Kilometre Array is going to be, and I look forward to living long enough to see… to see the first results from that, but it’s just… it’s just the way the world is. And I think we’re… we’re fortunate that governments are still sufficiently keen to provide the money that you can… that you can do these things. As we know, the world is desperately short of scientists, in this country particularly, and astrophysics is a very good way of attracting people into science because it’s an exciting field, and I think they’re prepared to give money for exciting projects still. But it all takes a long, long time. And there’s not so much opportunity if you’re a young scientist to do groundbreaking work because you just can’t get on with the job quickly. And I don’t know quite what I’d advise a young scientist to be doing. My son was a physicist and he got into electronics and computing, which is hard to avoid these days, but if I was trying to advise a young graduate student what student… what research he ought to be doing, I’m not quite sure where I would… I would direct him. Where are the fields nowadays which… in which little is known and in which small groups with modest funding can make a breakthrough? It could be something like neuroscience. I mean, medical physics is a big area and the complexity of the human frame is such that it’s going to take decades, I think, to get anywhere with understanding how they… what goes on in our minds, but that is the sort of area, perhaps, where insights and… and doing your own thing could… could be important. I honestly don’t know. But the world has changed a lot and it’s… it’s very interesting to look back and see how things were. Certainly, I think the way we were doing things in the ‘50s and ‘60s developed a sort of team spirit which is hard to get nowadays. Martin Ryle’s influence still exists in this group, luckily, because there are people around who remember those days, and traditions like that do persist. And Cambridge is… is still doing its bit on… on a global scale. We are, as you know, part of the Square Kilometre Array team, but I look forward to those results. But I… I don’t think I would… I would be totally happy and fulfilled taking part, as I was many, many years ago.

Antony Hewish (1924-2021) was a pioneer of radio astronomy known for his study of intergalactic weather patterns and his development of giant telescopes. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, together with fellow radio-astronomer Sir Martin Ryle, for his decisive role in the groundbreaking discovery of pulsars. He also received the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1969.

Listeners: Dave Green

Dave Green is a radio astronomer at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. As an undergraduate at Cambridge his first university physics lecture course was given by Professor Hewish. Subsequently he completed his PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory when Professor Hewish was head of the radio astronomy group, and after postdoctoral research in Canada he returned to the Cavendish, where he is now a Senior Lecturer. He is a Teaching Fellow at Churchill College. His research interests include supernova remnants and the extended remains of supernova explosions.

Duration: 7 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2008

Date story went live: 25 June 2009