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Antony Hewish: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Nicholas Pieri

Nicholas holds a BS in Geology and a master's degree in education. He has taught secondary Earth space science.

Lets take a look at Antony Hewish, famed radio astronomer. He won the Nobel Prize for his famous discovery involving a strange new star and the possibility of estraterrestrial life.

Antony Hewish

Imagine yourself camping in a remote stretch of desert. Sitting next to your friend, a small fire warms you both. As you gaze upon the stars of the night sky, your friend jokingly takes out her walkie-talkie. 'Think we can communicate with extraterrestrial life using this thing?' she asks with a laugh. Scanning through the frequencies she stops suddenly as a beep, beep, beep, beeping rings out from the speaker. In precise intervals of slightly more than second each, a staccato pulse emits from the device. What could it be? Could it be alien life? Perhaps nothing more than some kind of feedback loop with a radio tower.

While this is all imagination, British radio astronomer Antony Hewish found himself in a similar position in the summer of 1967. With his powerful radio telescope pointed into the cosmos, Antony intercepted a strange and persistent signal that returned every 1.3373011 seconds. That signal tuned out to be a new discovery; a rapidly spinning star emitting bursts of electromagnetic radiation called a pulsar.

Radio Telescope
Radio Telescope

Biography

Antony Hewish was born May 11, 1924 in Cornwall, England. The son of a banker, he graduated from King's College, Taunton to attend the University of Cambridge in 1942. A year into his studies, Antony was called for war service. From 1943 to 1946 Antony worked on airborne radar counter-measure devices for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This experience with radio antennas would greatly influence his later research as well as introduce him to radio astronomer Martin Ryle.

After the war, Antony returned to Cambridge and joined Ryle's research team at the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory. Hewish earned his Ph. D in 1952 and would remain in academia until his retirement in 1989.

University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge

Career and Research

Hewish worked as a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College before transferring to Churchill College, Cambridge as the Director of Studies in Physics in 1961. He was named Professor of Radio Astronomy in 1971 and would lead the Cambridge radio astronomy group after 1977.

Early Research

Have you ever wondered why stars twinkle at night? This phenomenon known as scintillation, occurs as the visible light from stars passes through Earth's turbulent atmosphere. The interaction causes the light to bend in various directions, resulting in the twinkling appearance.

Hewish himself was interested in star scintillation, except instead of observing visible light from stars, he studied the radio waves they produce. Using radio telescopes, he discovered that radio waves produced by stars also 'twinkle'. Hewish found that the variations were caused as the radio waves traveled through varying concentrations of solar wind. He named this process interplanetary scintillation.

Construction of Phased-Array Antenna

With this new discovery, Hewish was ready to study interplanetary scintillation on a larger scale. He envisioned a massive array covering nearly five acres of land. He obtained the funds to construct the Interplanetary Scintillation Array at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in 1965, and by 1967, the antenna was operational. Hewish and his team began scanning the skies. Soon after, a graduate student named Jocelyn Bell noticed a strange signal.

A Strange Signal From Space

After ruling out the possibility that the signal was coming from Earth, the research team began to speculate its origin. Remember our story of the strange transmission coming from the walkie-talkie in the desert? Hewish and his team were so perplexed by the precise nature of the radio signal that they couldn't rule out extraterrestrial life as its source. Was it a message from intelligent life forms? In fact, the team named the signal LGM for they could not rule out little green men as the source!

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