Sky was no limit for ex­tra­galac­tic ob­server

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

The moon land­ing was an Amer­i­can-led space ad­ven­ture but it also shone a spot­light on an Aus­tralian sci­en­tific suc­cess story.

The Parkes ra­dio te­le­scope in ru­ral NSW be­came world fa­mous when, in July 1969, it re­layed Neil Arm­strong’s first steps on the moon.

Sci­ence writer Peter Robert­son is known for his 1992 book on the te­le­scope, Be­yond South­ern Skies. He spent much of his work­ing life with the CSIRO Pub­lish­ing group in Mel­bourne. Now he has writ­ten a fine bi­og­ra­phy of one of the West­ern world’s lead­ing ra­dio as­tronomers, John Gatenby Bolton.

With ac­cess to Bolton’s vo­lu­mi­nous pro­fes­sional and pri­vate pa­pers, in­clud­ing manuscripts, books and pho­tographs held at the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, Robert­son draws an in­trigu­ing por­trait of the life of a tal­ented sci­en­tist. In 2008 and 2009 the au­thor was awarded a fel­low­ship at the NLA and then a res­i­dency at Man­ning Clark House in Can­berra to com­plete a sys­tem­atic study of Bolton’s pa­pers. It has taken a while for this hand­some book to see the light of day, not least be­cause Robert­son also wanted to draw on other archival sources in Aus­tralia, the US, Britain and France. And he in­ter­viewed sci­en­tists who were prom­i­nent in the de­vel­op­ment of ra­dio as­tron­omy and other peo­ple who could shed light on Bolton’s life.

Although a house­hold name in as­tron­omy cir­cles, Bolton is still rel­a­tively un­known to the gen­eral pub­lic. This book should change that.

Bolton was born in 1922 in Sh­effield, York­shire, and stud­ied math­e­mat­ics and physics at Trin­ity Col­lege, Cam­bridge, from 1940 to 1942. Af­ter leav­ing univer­sity he served in the Royal Navy on HMS Uni­corn and then in the RAN. In late 1946 he joined the ra­dio­physics lab­o­ra­tory of Aus­tralia’s pre­mier re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search, which was later re­named the Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

From Septem­ber 1946 Bolton was part of a small group at the Dover Heights field station south of Syd­ney Heads. They iden­ti­fied the first dis­crete ra­dio sources: “un­usual ob­jects at vast dis­tances with in­tense emis­sion at ra­dio fre­quen­cies”. This marked the birth of a new field of study: ex­tra­galac­tic ra­dio as­tron­omy.

Bolton’s pro­fes­sional ca­reer was stel­lar. He be­came the in­au­gu­ral di­rec­tor of two cru­cial sci­en­tific fa­cil­i­ties. As Robert­son re­veals, in the late 1950s at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Bolton helped build and di­rect — at Owens Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia — the first ma­jor ra­dio ob­ser­va­tory in the US. He then re­turned to Aus­tralia where, in early 1961, he took charge of the newly com­pleted Parkes te­le­scope.

It was Bolton and his team who pro­pelled Aus­tralia to the fore­front of in­ter­na­tional ra­dio as­tron­omy. He was re­spon­si­ble for pro­duc­tion of the Parkes cat­a­logue, which listed more than 8000 ra­dio sources, in­clud­ing sev­eral hun­dred quasars. As the sub­ti­tle to Robert­son’s book sug­gests, the te­le­scope pro­vided a new win­dow on the uni­verse.

The book comes with an in­tro­duc­tion by ra­dio as­tronomers Ron Ek­ers, an Aus­tralian who stud­ied un­der Bolton, and Ken Keller­mann, an Amer­i­can. Ek­ers sin­gles out quasars as the most im­por­tant of the dis­cov­er­ies made at Parkes. “They caused a par­a­digm shift which changed the di­rec­tion of ex­tra­galac­tic as­tron­omy.” Pul­sar ob­ser­va­tions were also im­por­tant.

Robert­son stood down as di­rec­tor of the ob­ser­va­tory in Jan­uary 1971, af­ter a decade in the role. It is dif­fi­cult to dis­agree with him that “the Parkes te­le­scope is one of the most suc­cess­ful re­search in­stru­ments ever built”.

Wo­ven through this fas­ci­nat­ing bi­og­ra­phy are de­light­ful de­tails of Bolton’s pri­vate life. These in­clude his ca­pac­ity for hard phys­i­cal labour and prac­ti­cal­ity, a love of cricket, and es­pe­cially his de­vo­tion to his Aus­tralian-born wife Letty Les­lie. They had two sons.

Af­ter a long pe­riod of ill health, which may have been partly caused by heavy smok­ing, Bolton died in 1993 of pneu­mo­nia at Bud­erim in Queens­land, where he and Letty had spent their re­tire­ment. Per­haps the best sum­mary of his per­son­al­ity, ca­reer and char­ac­ter comes from one of his PhD stu­dents, Robert Wil­son, who in 1978 won the No­bel Prize in Physics:

“John taught me a lot about be­ing a sci­en­tist,” he says. “I have al­ways ad­mired his flu­ency of ideas, his care and hon­esty in mak­ing mea­sure­ments and his will­ing­ness to work on all the jobs from ditch dig­ging on up.”

There was much more to Bolton than merely the sci­ence, as this ex­cel­lent book shows. is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pol­i­tics at Grif­fith Univer­sity.

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