The Amazing Ruby Payne-ScottMay 21, 2014

Radiophysics, one of the sub-branches of physics, focuses on the theoretical and experimental study of certain kinds of radiation. Radio astronomy, on the other hand, is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects at radio frequencies. Although these two fields don't interest many, both are vital in the modern world. Like most jobs, the people working here spend years, if not a lifetime, in anonymity. But it can be exciting, as science is about discovery.

Ruby Payne-Scott won't ring a bell, but to those familiar with the history of radiophysics and radio astronomy, she was a pioneer.

Born in Grafton, New South Wales on May 28, 1912, the young Payne came at the right time. She received a Bachelors of Science, with honours in math and physics, from Sydney University. She finished a Masters in Physics in 1936, a remarkable feat as postgraduate studies were not offered at Australian universities during that time. She was one of the few women to get an advanced degree in physics. There were few opportunities for women, but there was a shortage of men due to the Second World War.

"She's a bit loud and we don't think she's quite what we want and she may be a bit unstable, but we'll let her continue and see how she works out," said Taffy Bowen, the head of the Radio Physics division, in a probationary report on Payne Scott's first few months at he Australian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

It didn't take long before the word got around, about her intellectual and technical prowess, forthright personality, and "bushwalking" advocation. But something came up. She and William Holman Hall were secretly married in 1944, letting it known that she was living with him. Marriage bars were being practised in Australia, restricting married women from employment in many professions. It was a brave move on Payne-Scott's part, but the real state of their relationship was found out in 1950. No action was taken against her, but she didn't let this passed without saying a word.

"Personally I feel no legal or moral obligation to have taken any other action than I have in making my marriage known ... the present procedure with regard to married women ... seems to go far beyond the simple statement in the Act ... [it] is ridiculous and can lead to ridiculous results," she said.

Payne-Scott let go of her job when she was pregnant with her first child. When she had her second, she devoted her time raising her kids. When they were old enough, she found work in (high school) teaching. Rosa Parks will come to mind when one thinks of this Aussie. The only difference was there was no hoo-ha on the latter's part, having lived her life quietly, doing her job. But she was a role model, being the first female to be recognised for her work in radiophysics and radio astronomy. She was one of the reasons why Australia would be the leading nation in both fields. She fought her rights in her own way.

Ruby Payne-Scott passed away on May 25, 1981.

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