Martin Ryle

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Sir Martin Ryle
Born (1918-09-27)27 September 1918
Brighton, England
Died 14 October 1984(1984-10-14) (aged 66)
Cambridge, England
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields Astronomy
Alma mater University of Oxford (BA, DPhil)
Doctoral advisor J. A. Ratcliffe[1]
Doctoral students
Known for Radio astronomy
Notable awards
Spouse Rowena Palmer (m. 1947)

Sir Martin Ryle FRS[2] (27 September 1918 – 14 October 1984) was an English radio astronomer who developed revolutionary radio telescope systems (see e.g. aperture synthesis) and used them for accurate location and imaging of weak radio sources. In 1946 Ryle and Vonberg were the first people to publish interferometric astronomical measurements at radio wavelengths, although Joseph Pawsey from the University of Sydney claimed to have actually made interferometric measurements earlier in the same year. With improved equipment, Ryle observed the most distant known galaxies in the universe at that time. He was the first Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, and founding director of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. He was Astronomer Royal from 1972 to 1982.[3] Ryle and Antony Hewish shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, the first Nobel prize awarded in recognition of astronomical research.[4]

In the 1970s, Ryle turned the greater part of his attention from astronomy to social and political issues which he considered to be more urgent.

Education and early life[edit]

Martin Ryle was born in Brighton, the son of Professor John Alfred Ryle and Miriam (née Scully) Ryle. He was the nephew of Oxford University Professor of Philosophy Gilbert Ryle.

After studying at Bradfield College, Ryle earned a physics degree from Christ Church in the University of Oxford. In 1939, Ryle worked with the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) on the design of antennas for airborne radar equipment during World War II. After the war, he received a fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Career and research[edit]

The focus of Ryle's early work in Cambridge was on radio waves from the Sun.[5][6][7] His interest quickly shifted to other areas, however, and he decided early on that the Cambridge group should develop new observing techniques. As a result, Ryle was the driving force in the creation and improvement of astronomical interferometry and aperture synthesis, which paved the way for massive upgrades in the quality of radio astronomical data. In 1946 Ryle built the first multi-element astronomical radio interferometer.[8]

Ryle guided the Cambridge radio astronomy group in the production of several important radio source catalogues. One such catalogue, the Third Cambridge Catalogue of Radio Sources (3C) in 1959 helped lead to the discovery of the first quasi-stellar object (quasar).

While serving as university lecturer in physics at Cambridge from 1948 to 1959, Ryle became director of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in 1957 and professor of radio astronomy in 1959. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1952,[2] was knighted in 1966,[citation needed] and succeeded Sir Richard Woolley as Astronomer Royal from 1972–1982. Ryle and Antony Hewish shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, the first Nobel prize awarded in recognition of astronomical research. In 1968 Ryle served as professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London.


Ryle was sometimes considered difficult to work with[citation needed] – he often worked in an office at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory to avoid disturbances from other members of the Cavendish Laboratory and to avoid getting into heated arguments, as Ryle had a hot temper. Ryle worried that Cambridge would lose its standing in the radio astronomy community as other radio astronomy groups had much better funding, so he encouraged a certain amount of secrecy about his aperture synthesis methods in order to keep an advantage for the Cambridge group.

Ryle had heated arguments with Fred Hoyle of the Institute of Astronomy about Hoyle's Steady State Universe, which restricted collaboration between the Cavendish Radio Astronomy Group and the Institute of Astronomy during the 1960s.

War, peace and energy[edit]

Ryle was a new physics graduate and an experienced radio 'ham' in 1939, when the Second World War started. He played an important part in the Allied war effort (Graham-Smith 1989, pp 500 – 506),[2] working mainly in radar countermeasures. After the war, "he returned to Cambridge with a determination to devote himself to pure science, unalloyed by the taint of war" (Graham-Smith 1986, p. 506).[2]

In the 1970s, Ryle turned the greater part of his attention from astronomy to social and political issues which he considered to be more urgent. With publications from 1976 and continuing, despite illness (Graham-Smith 1989, p 517),[2] until he died in 1984, he pursued a passionate and intensive program on the socially responsible use of science and technology.[9] His main themes were

  • warning the world of the horrific dangers of nuclear armaments, notably in his pamphlet Towards the Nuclear Holocaust.[10]
  • criticism of nuclear power, as in Is there a case for nuclear power?[11]
  • research and promotion of alternative energy and energy efficiency, as in Short-term Storage and Wind Power Availability.[12]
  • calling for the responsible use of science and technology. "...we should strive to see how the vast resources now diverted towards the destruction of life are turned instead to the solution of the problems which both rich - but especially the poor - countries of the world now face." (Rowan-Robinson and Rudolf 1985, p 14).[9]

In 1983 Ryle responded to a request from the President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences for suggestions of topics to be discussed at a meeting on Science and Peace. Ryle's reply was published posthumously in Martin Ryle's Letter (Rowan-Robinson and Rudolf 1985, pp 15 – 20).[9] An abridged version appears in New Scientist with the title Martin Ryle's Last Testament.[13] The letter ends with "Our cleverness has grown prodigiously - but not our wisdom."

Honours and awards[edit]

Ryle was awarded numerous prizes and honours including:


In 1965 Ryle co-delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Exploration of the Universe.

Personal life[edit]

Ryle was an amateur radio operator, pp 499 – 500 of Graham-Smith 1986,[2] and held the GB-Callsign G3CY. Ryle married Rowena Palmer in 1947. He died on 14 October 1984, in Cambridge. He was celebrated on a first class stamp issued as part of a set of eminent Britons on 8 October 2009.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Martin Ryle at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Graham-Smith, F. (1986). "Martin Ryle. 27 September 1918-14 October 1984". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 32: 496–426. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1986.0016. 
  3. ^ About Sir Martin Ryle
  4. ^ Press release about Martin Ryle's Nobel Prize.
  5. ^ Obs 104 (1984) 283
  6. ^ QJRAS 26 (1985) 358
  7. ^ The Papers of Martin Ryle have been catalogued by Anna-K Mayer and Tim Powell, NCUACS, in 2009 and are deposited with the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.
  8. ^ Ryle, M.; Vonberg, D. D. (1946). "Solar Radiation on 175 Mc./s". Nature. 158 (4010): 339. Bibcode:1946Natur.158..339R. doi:10.1038/158339b0.  – Observations from the first multi-element astronomical radio interferometer
  9. ^ a b c Rowan-Robinson, M. and Rudolf, A. Martin Ryle's Letter. Menard Press, 1985.
  10. ^ Ryle, M. Towards the Nuclear Holocaust. Menard Press, 1981.
  11. ^ Ryle, M. (1981) "Is there a case for nuclear power?" Electronics and Power 28 (7/8): 496-500.
  12. ^ Anderson, M. B., Newton, K., Ryle, M. and Scott, P. F. (1978) "Short-term Storage and Wind Power Availability". Nature 275 (5679): 432-434. doi:10.1038/275432a0
  13. ^ Ryle M. (1985) "Martin Ryle's Last Testament". New Scientist 105 (14 February): 36-37.
  14. ^ "Winners of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society". Royal Astronomical Society. Retrieved 24 February 2011. 
  15. ^ "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 24 February 2011. 
  16. ^ "Franklin Laureate Database – Albert A. Michelson Medal Laureates". Franklin Institute. Retrieved 14 June 2011. 
  17. ^ "Past Winners of the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Retrieved 24 February 2011.