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Martin Ryle's ill health and new directions for the group


Developing the department of radio astronomy
Antony Hewish Astronomer
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We’ve always been a Department of Physics and radio astronomy was still a Department of Physics in those days, it’s just that we had this out station at… at Lord’s Bridge and… our… our graduate students were all… were all actually within the Department of Physics. There was no separate Department of Radio Astronomy. And that’s… that’s how things kind of accelerated in… in the very early years and… and Ratcliffe was supported… supportive all that time and… and he engineered our grant. But radio astronomy then began to eclipse the ionospheric work and Ratcliffe himself retired in… I forget exactly when, but he’d gone soon after 1960. And… and he went back to… to run the ionospheric research at the… for the DSIR [Department of Scientific and Industrial Research], as it was then called, at… at Slough. He carried on the work that Appleton had been doing in running the National Ionospheric Research Group, which was then based at… at Slough. It later moved to the Rutherford lab nearer Oxford. But… but Ratcliffe had been supportive all that time but not remotely interested in the… in the data that we were getting and just helping Martin Ryle on the… on the internal university politics side and getting… getting funding. Martin himself wasn’t interested in international collaboration in any way; he wanted to get on with things quickly himself and I think he was a supreme character of that; he did extremely well. I mean, if you look at the development of radio astronomy here, in Cambridge, and compare it with the development of radio astronomy, for example, in America, where they were in a position to have done much better than… than we did because they had more facilities, they had… they had more… more cash, but their… their astronomy was planned by elderly optical astronomers, not by young, revolutionary radio astronomers. We were not really recognised as… as astronomers by the optical astronomical community, we were playing around with radio waves and I think we weren’t really respected… until much, much later on. And, I mean Martin, Ryle was eventually a highly respected figure after… after he had published his results, which overthrew the steady state theory. But in the early days we weren’t really recognised as astronomers and, in fact, we didn’t know very much astronomy, we learned astronomy as we went along. And it was a… it was quite a strange world.

But coming back to what I was saying about the American development, they developed things that looked a bit like optical telescopes, because if you leave it to optical astronomers, you know, they will develop radio telescopes that looked a little bit like the big optical ones and that wasn’t the way to go. And their first national radio astronomy facility at… at Greenbank wasn’t a top quality facility because they built… the first thing they built was a big steerable dish, and it wasn’t very big and it wasn’t a terribly good dish and it took ages to build. And by then it was the 1970s and, you know, most… most of the interesting fundamental work had already been done. When the Americans really came in to build instruments, copying Ryle’s aperture synthesis, of course they overtook us, and that happened after 1970. And 1970 was when the 5-km [telescope] was fully operational. But the strange thing was, that having done that, Martin realised that he wasn’t a healthy man. As I said, he couldn’t come to receive the Nobel Prize. He began to lose interest in radio astronomy. Having solved, having cracked the major cosmological problem, and I think cracked the major cosmological – not cosmological, the astronomical problem of what radio galaxies actually are, you know they are some sort of active nucleus shooting jets of energy in two directions – having got that far, Martin himself seemed to lose interest in forwarding the… purely astronomical, radio astronomical research, and to my mind that was… that was always really rather sad because, having built the 5-km telescope, which was an absolute world leader, he then didn’t use it for his… for his own research. He became interested in things like wind energy. He was a very environmentally conscious person and he saw the problems the world was running into. He was always anti-nuclear energy; he saw the problems and dangers of that. He… he was always against the development of nuclear power because he thought it was simply too dangerous and he thought also that going along in parallel with that was the nuclear weapons side of it, because you generate plutonium, and he was… he was anxious that it would be a destablising factor for the… for the world if… if one went, solved energy that way. And being a great sailor himself, he built his own yachts and he thought that wind energy was the way to go, and he received a lot of criticism in the press about that, that wind energy was hopeless and wind turbines wouldn’t work. It was interesting, really, he was pioneering. He built some of the first wind turbines here, at Lord’s Bridge, and that research has finished now, of course, but in his final years Martin Ryle lost interest in developing radio astronomy as an… as an astronomical tool and got involved with these other things. Now, that was the time I was very busy with the follow-up pulsar work and… and the scintillation surveys that I had developed.

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: 6 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2008

Date story went live: 25 June 2009