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Women and science.

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Friday 19 September 2003

Claire Hooker, historian, University of Sydney


Women and Science  

Over the past decade or two we have been concerned about the low numbers of women in science. We know that few young women study science, and that’s because they have no role models except Marie Curie. Very few people can name any Australian women scientists at all.  


Yet the fact is that for the past century women have made up at least a quarter of the scientific workforce in Australia and at times outnumbered male science students, even before World War II. Australian woman scientists have clocked up an impressive list of achievements - it was a woman who first discovered toxic blue-green algae in Australia; who did the earliest research on the prickly pear pest in Queensland; who did the botanical work that identified schoolboy Graeme Thorne’s murderer; who invented the vanadium battery, an efficient way of storing solar or wind energy now used to power cities in Japan; who carried out the very first ecological surveys of Australian seashores … I could go on and on. But I think the real problem is not so much that Australians haven’t heard of these brilliant women, but rather that Australians haven’t heard of any of the scientists, women or men, or of the research they did that has made this country great.  


Take Ruby Payne-Scott, for instance. She was reputedly the greatest physicist of her generation, one of the world’s first radio astronomers. Ruby and her colleague Joe Pawsey were doing top secret research on a new weapon, radar, in 1943 when they became aware that not all of the signals that radio receivers picked up were produced by humans. The idea that radio waves came from outer space was then entirely new and astounding. Soon she and Pawsey were poking radar antenna out of office windows in their spare time to pick up signals from the sky, and when peace was declared they grabbed all the army radar equipment they could fit in a truck and set it up on a cliff edge in Dover Heights to measure signals from outer space. The results were astonishing. The Australian team listened to the radio signals created by sunspots and discovered whole new galaxies and supernova. Far and away the best mathematician there, Ruby worked out, with Pawsey and another colleague, the mathematical operation (Fourier transform) for how to understand radio signals that has formed the basis of the science ever since. Eventually their work would result in the famous Dish at Parkes and the recording of the moonlanding.  


Ruby was so successful because she was brilliant, very hard working, and had a lot of chutzpah. She was a loud, rebellious, outspoken and opinionated person who often intimidated her colleagues. Once, she interrupted a visitor half way through his talk to ask, ‘Kevin, where did you get that data on which your theory depends?’ He replied, ‘from your colleague John Bolton.’ Ruby said, ‘well, it’s wrong’. The visitor immediately tore up his paper and left. Nobody argued with Ruby because everyone knew she would be right. 


In 1944 Ruby’s colleagues became aware that she was living with a man - a piece of immorality that they put down to her rebellious ideas. But the truth was that she had gotten married. However she told no one because at that time women were legally required to resign when they married. In 1950, when she became pregnant, she revealed all and resigned from the CSIRO, laughing at them while they tried to work out how not to pay her 6 years’ worth of illegal superannuation! Ruby chose to concentrate on family life after that, and returned to work only as a high school teacher before her death from Alzheimer’s disease in 1982.  


We can only understand Ruby’s life if we share her curiosity about the Universe and the excitement of discovery. We can only understand why someone spent so many shivering dawns on a lonely cliff top if we know that it was more important to her to give a little drop of knowledge to humanity than it was to make money or seek her own comfort. And my feeling is that our girls, and our boys, too, will only do science if we encourage them to listen to these and other captivating stories in Australian science and to honour the values of pure knowledge and community service that were at the centre of these scientists’ lives.  


Guests on this program:


Claire Hooker  

Historian of Science and Medicine at the University of Sydney. Author of 'Women in Australian Science' to be published in 2004 by the University of Melbourne Press