Antony Hewish, a British astronomer who designed and built the innovative radio telescope used to discover pulsars – dense, fast-spinning stars that emit beams of radiation – and received a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in their detection, died September 13 at age 97.
His death was announced by Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, where he was a member emeritus. Dr Hewish has been associated with Cambridge throughout his scientific career and was working at the school’s Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory when he and his research team detected the first pulsars in 1967.
Like celestial lighthouses, stars send streams of radio waves or other radiation into the universe, spinning rapidly so that their beams appear to pulsate like a clock. Most pulsars are now considered neutron stars, the extraordinarily dense envelopes of collapsed supergiants. Their discovery ushered in a new era for 20th-century astronomy, helping scientists locate distant planets, search for gravitational waves, and study the interstellar medium that fills the cosmos.
Along with his Cambridge colleague Martin Ryle, Hewish was one of the first two astronomers to win a Nobel Prize. They were honored in 1974 for what the committee described as “their pioneering research in radio astrophysics”, with Hewish being cited for having played a “decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”.
Still, the award sparked decades of arguments among scientists who said at least part of the award should have been awarded to one of Hewish’s graduate students, Jocelyn Bell. She helped build the radio telescope, operated the instruments, analyzed the data, and identified the first pulsars, for which she then received the Special Prize for Breakthrough 2018 in Fundamental Physics.
Hewish has never denied that Jocelyn Bell Burnell, as she was called, made the first observations of the pulsar. But he noted that he himself had closely studied the pulses, made detailed measurements to learn more about the signals, and created the telescope that made their discovery possible.
“When you’re planning a discovery ship and someone at the masthead says land ho, that’s awesome,” he said in a video interview that featured in a recent New York Times documentary on Bell Burnell. “But I mean, who really inspired and designed it and decided what to do when and so on? I mean, there is a difference between the skipper and the crew.”
Hewish was studying the rapid changes in radio signals when he built the Interplanetary Scintillation Network, a four-acre network of copper cables and wires that spanned a field near Cambridge. As part of a search for mysterious radio sources known as quasars, the telescope recorded distant radio wave signals, which were recorded on map paper as peaks and valleys.
Shortly after the telescope was completed in 1967, Bell Burnell noticed an unusual scribble, what she called a piece of “skin,” which she traced down to the constellation Vulpecula. “I wanted to figure out what it was, and I ended up bringing this issue to Tony. And he said it was interference,” she recalls in the Times documentary. Referring to herself in the third person, she added that Hewish “had an idea that Jocelyn had miswired the radio telescope, and that was something to do with it.”
As Bell Burnell said, she continued to study the skin, doing a more detailed scan that revealed a series of pulses about 1 1/3 seconds apart. Once again she called Hewish. This time, he acknowledged that it was an authentic signal, although its source remains unclear; Unable to rule out an extraterrestrial origin, they jokingly named their discovery LGM-1, for Little Green Man, according to a 2018 report in the Washington Post.
Bell Burnell quickly discovered a second, third, and fourth pulse signal, suggesting they had discovered a new type of star. The results were announced in a February 1968 article in Nature, in which Hewish was credited first, followed by Bell Burnell and three other members of the research team.
Interviewed for the Times documentary, Bell Burnell said Hewish “could have quoted me more and didn’t” when presenting their findings in Cambridge. She added that although he became the scientific face of the pulsar’s discovery, she was interviewed purely for “human interest”, asked about her hair color and the dimensions of her hips, waist and waist. Her chest. “Tony let it go,” she said. “It was awful.”
Regarding the Nobel Prize, however, she said that Ryle and Hewish fully deserve the honor. When English astronomer Fred Hoyle claimed in 1975 that Hewish won by claiming credit for Bell Burnell’s work, she responded by saying that Hoyle had “greatly exaggerated the situation” and was “factually incorrect”.
“I don’t mind much that my name was not included,” she told The Guardian in 2009. “At that time, the students were not recognized by the committee.”
In 1993, when a Nobel Prize was awarded for the second time to researchers at the pulsar, this practice had apparently changed. The committee honored both the professor who oversaw the research, Joseph Taylor Jr., and his then graduate student, Russell Hulse.
The youngest of three sons, Antony Hewish was born in Fowey, Cornwall on May 11, 1924 and raised in the coastal town of Newquay. His father was a banker, but Hewish showed an aptitude for physics while studying at King’s College boarding school in Taunton and enrolled in Cambridge in 1942 to study science.
Hewish was also a competitive rower, and in a 2008 video interview for Cambridge, he recalls spending “afternoons training on the river when I should have been in the physics lab.” His grades suffered, and after his freshman year he was sent to help with the war effort at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, a military research center in Farnborough.
For most of the next three years he helped develop a device for jamming enemy aircraft radar, working with electronics and antennas that piqued his interest in radio astronomy. He also met Ryle, the leader of the Army Radar Countermeasures Group, whose lab he joined after returning to Cambridge and graduating in 1948.
Hewish married Marjorie Richards in 1950. She later told The Times that she was surprised when her husband won a share of the Nobel Prize: and sharing it was totally unexpected as far as my husband was concerned. “
They had a son and a daughter. Information on the survivors was not immediately available.
After obtaining his doctorate in 1952, Hewish joined the faculty of Cambridge. He was professor of radio astronomy from 1971 until his retirement in 1989, and headed the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory for six years at the end of his career. He also enjoyed giving lectures on physics to a large audience, notably at the Royal Institution in London.
“There is, I think, a particular benefit to mankind in the field of astrophysics,” he said at the conclusion of his Nobel banquet speech in 1974. “It is impossible to attend. the interaction of galaxies without a sense of wonder, and looking back on Earth we see it in its true perspective, a planet of great beauty, an undivided sphere.Let’s try to keep that image always in our sight. “