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Yesterday was the birthday of Ruby Payne-Scott, who was born 101 years ago in 1912, and a pioneer in radio physics and radio astronomy, as well as an advocate for women’s rights. Her extraordinary scientific mind became obvious early in life, when she entered the University of Sydney aged just 16, where she graduated with double first-class honours in mathematics and physics, and won the mathematics prize, as well as gaining a scholarship in physics. She was the third female graduate in physics at the university.
The Depression wasn’t a good time to be job-searching, but Ruby found work at the Cancer Research Institute where she completed her masters thesis on radiation. After a brief stint of teaching, she applied to Australian Wireless Amalgamated, a huge company that ran all the wireless services, and was the first woman they hired in a research capacity. AWA weren’t keen on hiring women at all, even as cleaners or typists, but they took Ruby on as librarian; she was soon a full-time research physicist.
During World War II, she was one of a group of young engineers from AWA hired by the government to conduct research on a secret new defensive weapons system – radar. She came into close contact with group leader Joseph Pawsey, and both became fascinated with reports of extra-terrestrial radio signals; they conducted the first experiment in radio astronomy in the southern hemisphere in 1944. After the war, she was one of a team at the CSIR (later the CSIRO) formed to survey “cosmic static” from astronomical objects. As a result, Australia became a global leader in radio astronomy, with Ruby the first female radio astronomer in the world.
Ruby was feisty and self-confident, very outspoken about her political views, which were that women should be equal to men, and scientific research should be independent. This got her labelled a communist, and “loud and unstable”, but she continued to press for equal treatment.
One thing she kept quiet was that she had married a telephone mechanic named Bill Hall in 1944, because until 1966, married women were expected to resign from the public service, and could not be employed on a permanent basis. When news of her marriage got out in 1950, she was reduced to temporary status and lost her pension and other benefits. She was forced to resign in 1951 when she became pregnant with her first child, and with no maternity leave or childcare, her brilliant career ended at the age of 39.
By the standards of her day, Ruby had it all. A highly-paid and rewarding scientific career, outside interests which included bushwalking and home renovation, a happy marriage, two children (who grew up to be a renowned mathematician and a distinguished artist), and, when her children were older, a return to teaching, where she was greatly admired by students who had no idea of her earlier achievements.
In her honour, the CSIRO initiated the Payne-Scott Awards to support researchers who need to take time off after the birth of a child. She was a bright star in her field, and because of Ruby and women like her, it’s possible to want equal pay, and the choice to work and have a family without being called a loud, unstable communist.
Ruby is a precious gemstone which is a variety of the mineral corundum, and comes in a range of red colours (when corundum is blue, it is called Sapphire). Its name comes from ruber, the Latin for “red”, and the most valuable rubies have the deepest red colour with a hint of blue. For centuries the main source of rubies was Myanmar (Burma), and today most rubies are either from Burma or Thailand. Rubies have always been especially valued in Asia, where they are seen as bringing good fortune.
Ruby has been used as a girl’s name since at least the 17th century, but was used as a pet form of Reuben since the Middle Ages. When Ruby was established as a girl’s name, it was sometimes given to boys, perhaps after the surname, which can come from the town of Roubaix in Normandy; its name means “stream on the plain”. Another possibility for the surname is that it is from the town of Roby in Lancashire, meaning “settlement by the boundary marker” in Old Norse. Ruby became popular for girls in the 19th century, when other gemstone names were fashionable.
Ruby was #21 in the 1900s, and had left the Top 100 by the 1930s. It disappeared from the charts between the 1950s and the 1970s, but came back in the 1980s at #548. One of the 1980s-born Rubys is model and TV host Ruby Rose, born Ruby Rose Lagenheim.
Ruby zoomed up the charts at such a dizzying speed that by 1996 it was already in the Top 100, debuting at #75. By 1998 it was in the Top 50 at #44, and by 2003 it was #20. Ruby made her Top 10 début in 2010, at #2, and last year she was #1. According to this article, Ruby is particularly popular on the Central Coast and in Newcastle.
Currently Ruby is #1 in New South Wales, #3 in Victoria, #3 in Queensland, #2 in South Australia, #3 in Western Australia, #1 in Tasmania, #4 in the Northern Territory and #2 in the Australian Capital Territory. Nationally Ruby is #2.
When a new baby was added to the Rafter family on popular family drama, Packed to the Rafters, she was named Ruby, and one of the babies portraying the character is also named Ruby. In fiction and real life, Ruby is big news.
Last year, Ruby was the name most commonly searched for to reach my blog, and no wonder people love it, because it’s a warm, vibrant name that is womanly yet spunky. However, it’s certainly had some detractors along the road to massive popularity.
It’s been called an old lady name, a hooker name, a trashy name … but the one that irritates me the most is when people refer to Ruby as a “dumb girl” name. I even saw one online pundit prophesy that your daughter would not get a degree if she was named Ruby!
Ruby Scott-Payne is proof that you can be named Ruby, and get as many degrees as you want. A Ruby can be brainy, bright, brilliant, strong, smart, sassy … and she can reach for the stars.
More information on Ruby Payne-Scott can be gained by reading her in-depth biography – Under the Radar: The First Woman in Radio Astronomy, Ruby Payne-Scott by William Miller Goss and Richard X. McGee
POLL RESULT: Ruby received an approval rating of 66%. People saw the name Ruby as cute and spunky (25%), but also thought it was too popular (20%). Nobody thought the name Ruby sounded like a “stripper name”.
(Picture is a detail from a poster featuring Ruby Payne-Scott designed by Amy Blue; by clicking on this link, you can “appreciate” the picture, or “like” it on Facebook etc)