Childhood & Early Years
Martin Ryle was born on 27 September 1918, in Sussex. His father, John Alfred Ryle, was a well-known physician and epidemiologist. Later, he was appointed to the first Chair of Social Medicine at Oxford University. His mother‘s name was Miriam (née Scully) Ryle. His uncle, Gilbert Ryle, was also a distinguished philosopher.
Martin was the second child of his parents. He had four siblings; two brothers and two sisters. All the five siblings had their early education under a governess. Later Martin was admitted to Gladstone’s Preparatory School in Eaton Square, London.
At the age of thirteen, Martin was sent to Bradfield College, a boarding and day school in Bradfield in the county of Berkshire, and passed out from there in 1936. Here, he developed an interest in radio engineering. Sometime now, he not only built his own radio transmitter, but also acquired a post office license for it.
In 1936, Martin enrolled at Christ Church, a constituent college under the University of Oxford, with physics as his major. Here too he retained his interest in radio engineering and set up the university amateur radio station together with his fellow students. He graduated from there in 1939.
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In 1939, Martin Ryle briefly joined ionospheric research group at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University under J. A. Ratcliffe. However, the Second World War started soon after and with that Martin shifted to Telecommunication Research Establishment, which was working on radar system for R.A.F.
For the first two years, Ryle worked on the antennas for airborne radar equipment. Later, he was shifted to newly formed Radio Countermeasures Division. Here the main task was to jam transmitters against the German radar defense system and to devise radio-deception operations.
It may be noted that because of their work, Germany thought that the D-Day invasion would take place across the Strait of Dover, not at Normandy. Indeed, Ryle and his team had to work under a very stressful condition, having to find many immediate as well as practical solutions for tackling tricky situations.
During this period, the team also detected vulnerability in the Germany’s V-2 rocket radio guidance system. Very quickly, they developed a system through which the accurate aims of these rockets could be greatly disrupted, thereby reducing their harmful effects to a large extent.
About his war experience, Ryle later said that it helped him to learn many things about engineering and to understand and motivate people. At the same time, it also made him forgot all that he had learned about physics.
Nonetheless, as the war ended in 1945, Ryle, on the advice of J. A. Ratcliffe, applied for a fellowship and joined his group at Cavendish Laboratory. He now started his research on the radio emission from the sun, a phenomenon, which had been accidentally discovered with help of the radar equipments.
It happened that during the war some unknown radio emissions from cosmic sources had interfered with the anti-aircraft radars. Later, it was found that the jamming was caused by radio emissions from the sun. The available apparatus of that time was not sufficient for investigating such phenomena.
Soon after joining the project, Ryle concentrated on developing more powerful aperture synthesis. In this, he was encouraged by J. A. Ratcliffe and Sir Lawrence Bragg. Ultimately in 1946, Ryle and his team built the first multi element astronomical radio interferometry.
in 1948, Ryle was appointed to the post of lecturer at the University of Cambridge. At the same time, he continued working in the same direction and over a period of 25 years developed a series of astronomical interferometry with increasing complexity and efficiency.
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At the same time, he concentrated on producing reliable catalogue of all bright radio sources in the northern sky. While the First Cambridge Catalogue was published in 1950, the second one was published in 1954. Later these findings were revised several times.
In 1957, Ryle became the founding Director of Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. Next in 1959, he was made a full professor in radio astronomy in the Cavendish Laboratory. In the same year, his team published the Third Cambridge Catalogue and discovered the first quasi-stellar source or quasar.
The invention of a more effective aperture synthesis in 1960s is definitely the biggest achievement OF Martin Ryle and his team. His team placed two telescopes at certain distances and by changing the distance between them and analyzing the results through computers, they received better and better resolving power.
In mid 1960s, they placed the two telescopes at a maximum distance of 1.6 km and found that a single telescope with 1.6 km diameter would give the same result. In 1967, Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell of the Cambridge group used this principle to locate the first pulsar.
Awards & Achievements
In 1974, Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish were jointly awarded with Nobel Prize in Physics “for their pioneering research in radio astrophysics: Ryle for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture synthesis technique, and Hewish for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars".
He was also made a Knight Bachelor in 1966 and Astronomer Royal in 1972.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1947, Martin Ryle married Ella Rowena Palmer; sister-in-law of fellow astronomer Sir Francis Graham-Smith. The couple had two daughters, Alison and Claire, and a son named John.
They had a wonderfully happy marriage. The family enjoyed sailing and owned number of boats. Two of the boats were designed and built by Ryle himself.
Ryle was active till his end. He died on 14 October 1984, at the age of 66, at Cambridge.
Ryle Telescope, located at Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, was renamed after Martin Ryle. Formerly known as 5-km Array, it was made up of eight independent telescopes placed in east-west direction operating at 15 GHz. However, in 2004, three of the telescopes have been relocated to create a compact two dimensional array of telescopes at the east end of the interferometer.
From the beginning of 1970s, Ryle began to concentrate more on social issues and advocated more responsible use of science and technology. ‘Towards Nuclear Holocaust’, ‘Is There a Case for Nuclear Power?’ written during this period show his aversion to war and destruction.
’Short-term Storage and Wind Power Availability’, a book on alternative energy also shows his concern for environment. In this book, he had suggested that wind power along with short-term thermal storage can provide an attractive source of energy in the United Kingdom.