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Sky was no limit for extragalactic explorer

2 September 2017 248 views No Comment

Radio Astronomer: John Bolton and a New Window on the Universe
By Peter Robertson
NewSouth, 432pp, $59.99 (HB)

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.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, September 2-3, 2017, review, Books, p22.

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