Obituary: Nobel Prize-winning Cambridge astrophysicist Professor Antony Hewish dies at 97
Cambridge astrophysicist Professor Antony Hewish, who won the Nobel Prize for his role in helping to discover pulsars, has died at the age of 97.
A fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, he was professor of radio astronomy at the Cavendish Laboratory from 1971 to 1989.
Prof Dame Athene Donald, the master of Churchill College, told the Cambridge Independent: “Professor Hewish was an extremely distinguished physicist, with a formidable record in research, who was a much-valued member of the college. His death will be felt by the whole community.”
It was in 1974 that the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Sir Martin Ryle and Prof Hewish “for their pioneering research in radio astrophysics”. Sir Martin was recognised for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture synthesis technique, while Prof Hewish was honoured “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”.
He had proposed and helped secure funding for the Interplanetary Scintillation Array, a large array radio telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory (MRAO) outside Cambridge.
Prof Hewish’s PhD student Jocelyn Bell – later known as Jocelyn Bell Burnell – helped to build the array and discovered the radio source that was later recognised as the first pulsar. These are highly magnetised, rapidly rotating compact stars – typically neutron stars, which have run out of fuel at their core and collapsed in on themselves, amid a huge explosion known as a supernova.
Pulsars emit intense regular bursts of radio emission at precise short time interval.
“Nothing like this had been observed in astronomy before,” Prof Malcolm Longair, director of development at the Cavendish Laboratory, told the Cambridge Independent. “Their discovery had implications for understanding all types of explosive events in astronomy, including the violent events associated with massive black holes in active galaxies.
“Tony had outstanding experimental skills, building innovative instruments at remarkably low cost, very much in the Cavendish tradition.”
Controversially, Jocelyn Bell did not share the Nobel Prize – called the No-Bell Prize by one contemporary – although she later said it would “demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students”. Recently, she was awarded the Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal, the world’s oldest scientific prize, for the work.
Born in Fowey, Cornwall, in 1924, Antony – known as Tony – attended King’s College, Taunton, before an undergraduate degree at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, which was interrupted by the war. He served at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough before being seconded to the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern, working with Martin Ryle.
After returning in 1946 to complete his degree, he joined Sir Martin’s research team at the Cavendish.
His 1952 PhD thesis focused on the observation and exploitation of the apparent scintillations of radio sources due to their radiation impinging upon plasma.
In 1965, he jointly delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on the ‘Exploration of the Universe’.
Two years later, work on the large array radio telescope at the MRAO was completed. Prof Hewish was head of the MRAO from 1982 to 1988.
He had become a professor of the Royal Institution in 1977 and was a member of the Advisory Council for the Campaign for Science and Engineering.
The Cavendish said it was sad to learn of Prof Hewish’s death on September 13.