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The beginnings of radio astronomy


Criticism from America
Antony Hewish Astronomer
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One aspect perhaps I should mention is that we were criticised a little bit – well, quite a bit more than a little bit – by the Americans who thought that we’d kept our mouths shut about the discovery for too long. And I’m absolutely unrepentant about that because, first of all, it isn’t really true. But in the press, in journals, things like Time magazine, people like Tommy Gold, for example, was outspoken about this. Tommy Gold was, as you know, was a colleague of Fred Hoyle and America was a little bit, more than a little bit disappointed that they hadn’t made the discovery because they had telescopes that could have done it very easily. And… but we did it, as it were, accidentally. And they mistook what we’d written. When, in my publication, I said that the survey began in… in June 1967 and we observed… only observed the first pulse at the very end of November of that year. But Jocelyn had noticed this unusual strong scintillator at… at the wrong time, when it was observed much too far from the Sun to scintillate strongly in the normal way, and in… actually in early August, and I said that the first recordings of that signal – I was very clear in what I said in the Nature letter – were actually made in… made in August. But somehow the Americans took it that we knew about pulsars in… in August, rather than in late November, at the… the very end of the year, and they criticised us for not being more public about the discovery. But I’m completely unrepentant about that because serious work and getting to the conclusion that we did, which was that they were either neutron stars or white dwarfs, one of which assumptions turned out to be correct, turned out to be right. But I think if you got an interesting experimental result; first of all, you should have time to mull over it and… and decide in your own mind what you think it is before going public. And secondly, if we’d gone public, serious work would have been impossible. If at the time we didn’t know what it was, the secret had been leaked that we were picking up a strange signal from 100 light years or so which was pulsing, I mean there’s absolutely no question that the lab would have been absolutely invaded by… by media. And… and serious work and… and science is just not possible under those conditions. And we’d had that experience when the first Sputnik was launched by the Russians, and we… I wasn’t involved in the work, but we were able to measure the orbit almost as soon as the first signals were detected. And the press invaded our site here at the Old Rifle Range, where radio astronomy began, and for 2 weeks, until they picked it up at Jodrell Bank, where we’d told them to point the telescope, the place was just full every time the thing was in transit across the sky. The press would be there and I was determined that that wouldn’t happen until we knew fairly clearly what these pulsing signals were. And particularly the question of whether they were likely to be aliens or not. So I think we did right there and I’m not the least bit unrepentant. But the Americans, first of all, made a mistake in thinking we’d discovered the pulsars in August, when in fact it was late November, and then not understanding, in fact, the problems we’d already had or experienced with the media in the days of the… of the first Sputnik. So there were those side aspects of the discovery which are… weren’t altogether pleasant and, as I said, I think the Americans were a little bit narked really because they had big dishes that could have discovered them. They had the big 1000-metre dish at Arecibo, which could easily have discovered pulsars and, in fact, it did much good work on them later, and still is. And I think they were disappointed about that. And Fred Hoyle and Tommy Gold were good friends and, of course, Fred Hoyle had it… a big grudge against Cambridge radio astronomers because they demolished his theory and he never forgave Martin Ryle for that, I think.

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: 4 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2008

Date story went live: 25 June 2009