Professor Antony Hewish FRS, 11 May 1924 - 13 September 2021

16th September 2021

The College is deeply saddened to announce the death of our Emeritus Fellow and Nobel Prize Winner for Physics, Professor Antony Hewish.  The discovery of pulsars, made when he was a Teaching Fellow, brought great early distinction to the records of the young College.

Born in Fowey, Cornwall, Antony grew up in Newquay and was educated at King’s College, Taunton before matriculating at Gonville and Caius in 1942. From 1943-46 he was engaged in war service at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough and at the Telecommunications Research Establishment, Malvern.

Returning to Cambridge in 1946, Antony graduated in 1948 and immediately joined Martin Ryle’s research team at the Cavendish Laboratory. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1952 and became a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius before transferring to Churchill College as Director of Studies in Physics in 1961. He was University Lecturer during 1961-69, Reader during 1969-71 and Professor of Radio Astronomy from 1971 until his retirement in 1989. In 1977 he assumed leadership of the Cambridge radio astronomy group and was head of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory (MRAO) from 1982-88.

Antony’s decision to begin research in radio astronomy was influenced both by his wartime experience with electronics and antennas and by one of his teachers, Jack Ratcliffe, who had given a memorable course on electromagnetic theory during his final undergraduate year. He made both practical and theoretical advances in the observation and exploitation of the apparent scintillations of radio sources due to their radiation impinging upon plasma. This led him to propose, and secure funding for, the construction of the Interplanetary Scintillation Array, a large array radio telescope at the MRAO in order to conduct a high time-resolution radio survey of interplanetary scintillation. The construction was completed in 1967.

Speaking of this time, Antony said “My first research was concerned with propagation of radiation through inhomogeneous transparent media and this has remained a lifelong interest. The first two radio “stars” had just been discovered and I realised that their scintillation, or “twinkling”, could be used to probe conditions in the ionosphere. I developed the theory of diffraction by phase-modulating screens and set up radio interferometers to exploit my ideas. Thus I was able to make pioneering measurements of the height and physical scale of plasma clouds in the ionosphere and also to estimate wind speeds in this region. Following our Cambridge discovery of interplanetary scintillation in 1964 I developed similar methods to make the first ground-based measurements of the solar wind and these were later adopted in the USA, Japan and India for long term observations. I also showed how interplanetary scintillation could be used to obtain very high angular resolution in radio astronomy, equivalent to an interferometer with a baseline of 1000 km – something which had not then been achieved in this field. It was to exploit this technique on a large sample of radio galaxies that I conceived the idea of a giant phased-array antenna for a major sky survey.”

It was in 1974 that Antony, together with Martin Ryle, won the Nobel Prize for Physics ‘for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars'. He was also awarded the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1969. From the Churchill College perspective it may be interesting to note that the celebrated (1968) pulsar discovery paper by Hewish, his student Jocelyn Bell Burnell and others had a precursor. Antony and Sam Okoye, a Nigerian Advanced Student  at Churchill, reported in 1964 the puzzling scintillations from a source in the crab nebula which they surmised might be the remnant of a supernova.

Antony was also a prolific speaker, co-delivering the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Exploration of the Universe in 1965 and subsequently several Friday Evening Discourses. Speaking of this work he said “I believe scientists have a duty to share the excitement and pleasure of their work with the general public, and I enjoy the challenge of presenting difficult ideas in an understandable way.”

Our thoughts are with Antony’s wife, Marjorie and their family.

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