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Advancing the field of radio astronomy

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Getting my foot into research
Antony Hewish Astronomer
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And that, of course, was where I met Martin Ryle, which was… which was a wonderful thing to do. I hadn't planned at all to be doing research finally; I didn't think I was going to be a research scientist, I hadn't… I thought I could teach. And I was… I had a job lined up at the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield, which was then a sort of super polytechnic. It's now Cranfield University. But just before the exam results came out, people said to me, oh, I wouldn't choose a job too quickly if I were you - you just wait and see what results you're going to get. They knew I was going to get quite a good result because they'd been marking the papers, and so I held back. And I got my First, and decided to do research, I got the opportunity to do research and I'd just met a rather interesting girlfriend in Cambridge – she's my wife now. She… I had plenty of reasons for wanting to stay on in Cambridge, rather than go to College of Aeronautics at Cranfield, and that's how I got my foot into research.

I mean, I hadn't got any lifelong ambition to be a research scientist, but it just happened, mainly as a result of my three gap years during the war, and the fact that I worked hard afterwards and got a good exam result and wanted to stay on in Cambridge. But I hadn't a clue what I was going to do.

And I was a late starter in research in the sense that if you plan to do research then you… you go round deciding what research group you're going to join and you're interviewed by them and so on weeks before you actually join. I didn't do that; there wasn't much left when I… when I decided I'd finally do research, but I knew about electronics. So I went to join the group that was then run by Jack Ratcliffe who was an ionospheric scientist, investigating the ionosphere. He'd been a student of Appleton, Edward Appleton of the Cavendish, and so I joined his group. He said there was funny things going on: there was radio waves coming from the sky, why don't you help Martin Ryle investigate those? That seemed to me a pretty good idea. I knew that radio waves came from the sun because that had been a wartime discovery, but I hadn't realised it was coming from other places. And Martin Ryle had then just discovered Cassiopeia A, that was 1948, and so radio astronomy was really just beginning. And I got in right on the ground floor and was incredibly lucky in that respect.

But research, you know, is a funny business when you're starting. I'm sure you know about that. But it's getting… it's getting moving in research, which often is a very tricky and uncertain time. I was given a project, which was to investigate the polarisation of radiation coming from the sun, and I started to do that, but the only time the sun was really strong enough to activate my equipment was when it was active. You know, the sun has active regions, sunspots on it; 1948 was unactive solar period and I had to wait until there were sunspots on the sun before you got these solar flare outbursts and I could pick up radiation.

And, to be honest, I was getting a little bit fed up because I couldn't see where this was going to lead. Just getting data on this didn't seem to me like a terribly exciting thing to be doing. I mean, the sun was up there, we all knew about the sun in a sense and I just hadn't really got my feet properly into research and I didn't really quite understand, you know, that the importance of basic measurements like that. And I went around actually looking for other jobs in my first year; I wasn't at all sure that I was actually going to stay on and… and do research. But then, all of a sudden, something clicked.

Born in 1924, Antony Hewish is 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.

Tags: University of Cambridge, Martin Ryle, Jack Ratcliffe

Duration: 4 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2008

Date story went live: 25 June 2009