Martin Ryle bigraphy, stories - British astronomer

Martin Ryle : biography

27 September 1918 - 14 October 1984

Sir Martin Ryle FRS (27 September 1918 – 14 October 1984) was an English radio astronomer who developed revolutionary radio telescope systems (see e.g. aperture synthesis) and used them for accurate location and imaging of weak radio sources. In 1946 Ryle and Vonberg were the first people to publish interferometric astronomical measurements at radio wavelengths, although it is claimed that Joseph Pawsey from the University of Sydney had actually made interferometric measurements earlier in the same year. With improved equipment, Ryle observed the most distant known galaxies in the universe at that time. He was the first Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, and founding director of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. He was Astronomer Royal from 1972 to 1982.

Ryle and Antony Hewish shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, the first Nobel prize awarded in recognition of astronomical research.


Martin Ryle was undoubtedly one of the great astronomers of the 20th Century. He was sometimes considered difficult to work with – in fact he often worked in an office at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory to avoid disturbances from other members of the Cavendish Laboratory and to avoid getting into heated arguments, as Ryle had a hot temper. Ryle worried that Cambridge would lose its standing in the radio astronomy community as other radio astronomy groups had much better funding, so he encouraged a certain amount of secrecy about his aperture synthesis methods in order to keep an advantage for the Cambridge group.

Ryle had a famous heated argument with Fred Hoyle of the Institute of Astronomy about Hoyle's Steady State Universe (see also the note on the 2C source survey), which somewhat restricted collaboration between the Cavendish Radio Astronomy Group and the Institute of Astronomy during the 1960s.

Ryle also authored a couple of short books on Nuclear Proliferation ('Politics of Nuclear Disarmament') where he argues that the only way to save the planet Earth from complete nuclear annihilation is to ban the use of any nuclear devices indefinitely. Ryle was an Amateur radio operator and held the GB-Callsign G3CY.

Honours and awards

  • Hughes Medal (1954)
  • Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1964)
  • Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1965)
  • Albert A. Michelson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1971)
  • Royal Medal (1973)
  • Bruce Medal (1974)
  • Nobel Prize in Physics (1974)
  • Ryle Telescope at Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory


In 1965 he was invited to co-deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Exploration of the Universe.


He was born in Brighton, the son of Professor John Alfred Ryle and Miriam (née Scully) Ryle. He is also the nephew of the famous Oxford University Professor of Philosophy Gilbert Ryle (Gilbert Ryle and John Alfred Ryle were brothers).

After studying at Bradfield, Ryle earned a physics degree at the University of Oxford. In 1939, Ryle worked with the Telecommunications Research Establishment on the design of antennas for airborne radar equipment during World War II. After the war he received a fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratory.

The focus of early work in Cambridge was on radio waves from the Sun. Ryle's interest quickly shifted to other areas, however, and to explore those he decided early on that the Cambridge group should develop new observing techniques. As a result, Ryle was the driving force in the creation and improvement of astronomical interferometry and aperture synthesis, which have contributed immensely to upgrading the quality of radio astronomical data. In 1946 he built the first multi-element astronomical radio interferometer.

He guided the Cambridge radio astronomy group in the production of several important radio source catalogues. For example, the Third Cambridge Catalogue of Radio Sources (3C) 1959 helped lead to the discovery of the first quasi-stellar object (quasar).

While serving as university lecturer in physics at Cambridge from 1948 to 1959, Ryle became director of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory 1957, and professor of radio astronomy in 1959. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1952, was knighted in 1966, and succeeded Sir Richard Woolley as Astronomer Royal (1972–82). Ryle and Antony Hewish shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, the first Nobel prize awarded in recognition of astronomical research. In 1968 he served as professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London.

Sir Martin Ryle died on 14 October 1984, in Cambridge. He had married Rowena Palmer in 1947.

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