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Ruby Violet Payne-Scott (1912–1981)

by W.M. Goss and Claire Hooker

This article was published:

Ruby Violet Payne-Scott (1912-1981), physicist, radio astronomer and schoolteacher, was born on 28 May 1912 at Grafton, New South Wales, elder child of Cyril Hermann Payne-Scott, a London-born accountant, and his Sydney-born wife Amy Sarah, née Neale.  After attending Sydney Girls’ High School, Ruby obtained first-class honours in mathematics and physics at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1933; M.Sc., 1936; Dip.Ed., 1938).  She won the Norbert Quirk prize for mathematics and, jointly with R. H. Healey, the Deas Thomson and Walter Burfitt scholarships for physics.

Despite the scarcity of employment during the Depression, Payne-Scott secured work as a physicist with the cancer research committee at the University of Sydney, where her research concentrated on a recently discovered cancer treatment, radiation.  She completed a master’s thesis on the wave-length distribution of the scattered radiation in a medium traversed by a beam of X- or gamma rays.  Unable to find further scientific work, she turned to teaching, at Woodlands Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Adelaide.  In 1939 she was appointed librarian with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd in Sydney.  The only woman on the professional staff, she was soon conducting research on problems in receiver design.

In 1941 Payne-Scott and Joan Freeman, along with other young engineers from AWA familiar with research on receivers and transmission, were hired by the division of radiophysics of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) to conduct research into a new, secret defensive weapon, radar.  Payne-Scott’s war research on small-signal visibility on radar displays and the accurate measurement of receiver noise factors brought her into close contact with the group leader, Joseph L. Pawsey.  Both were interested in reports of extra-terrestrial radio signals—a previously unimaginable phenomenon—and the two conducted what may be fairly termed the first radio astronomy experiment in the southern hemisphere by making an 11-cm observation of the sky in 1944.

After World War II ended Payne-Scott, Pawsey and others from the radiophysics division formed one of only two teams of scientists in the world to use survey work to investigate this 'cosmic static', which was found to emanate from the sun, radio nebulae and other astronomical objects.  As a result, Australia became a world leader in radio astronomy, with Payne-Scott playing a central role alongside other pioneers such as Bernard Mills and John Bolton.  Payne-Scott’s research focused on solar noise, particularly its correlation with sunspot activity, which allowed her to investigate more fully the structure and character of the new types of non-thermal emission from the solar corona.  She played a central role in the discovery of Type I, II and III bursts—the latter two related to plasma emission processes.

Payne-Scott’s most significant contribution to radio astronomy was to demonstrate, with Pawsey and Lindsay McCready, that the distribution of radio brightness across the sky could be treated mathematically as a two-dimensional sum of an infinite series of simple waveforms of varying frequency known as the 'Fourier components' of the distribution, and that therefore the components could be computed by performing a 'Fourier transform'.  This work published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, series A, vol. 190, 12 August 1947, was recognised as the mathematical foundation of future research in radio astronomy.

On 8 September 1944 at the district registrar’s office, Ashfield, Payne-Scott married William Holman Hall, a telephone mechanic.  In 1950 CSIRO management officially heard of her marriage.  Since public service rules at the time required women to resign upon marriage, she lost her permanent position and became a temporary employee—a loss of status she indignantly protested in keeping with her fearless, unconventional character and passionate commitment to her political views.  She left CSIRO and radio astronomy in 1951, when she was expecting her first child.

Feisty, self-confident and immensely capable, Payne-Scott was known for stridently engaging her colleagues in political discussions, during which she vehemently espoused her left-wing opinions (she was a member of the Communist Party of Australia).  She confronted inequality and injustice wherever she perceived it.  Unrestricted by conventional dress for women—she daringly wore shorts to work—she was an avid bushwalker and home renovator with her husband.  From 1963 to 1974 she taught mathematics and science at Danebank Church of England School for Girls, Hurstville.  Survived by her husband and their son and daughter, she died of presenile dementia on 25 May 1981 at Mortdale and was cremated.  Her son Peter Hall, FRS, is an eminent mathematician; her daughter Fiona a well-known artist and photographer.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Hooker, Irresistible Forces (2004)
  • W. M. Goss and R. McGee, Under the Radar (2010)
  • A8520, item PH/PAY/002, A6119, item 1679 (National Archives of Australia)

Citation details

W.M. Goss and Claire Hooker, 'Payne-Scott, Ruby Violet (1912–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hall, Ruby Violet

28 May, 1912
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia


25 May, 1981 (aged 68)
Mortdale, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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