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Session 28 - HAD II: Modern Astronomical History.
Oral session, Wednesday, January 07

[28.05] Radio Stars or Radio Nebulae? - The Uncertainties of 1953

W. T. Sullivan III (U. Washington)

By the early 1950s radio astronomers in England and Australia had assembled a handful of catalogues giving flux densities (at 100 MHz) and positions for a total of about 200 radio sources. But only a half dozen of these sources had suggested optical identifications and there raged a debate as to whether the radio sources as a whole were galactic or extragalactic. Furthermore, what was the relationship between these discrete radio sources and the strong galactic background radiation? Could a consistent model be constructed in which the background was the integrated radiation from the weaker members of the detected population? This paper aims to convey the uncertainty of astronomers in 1953. The primary data emanated from the surveys of Ryle, Smith and Elsmore (1950), Bolton, Stanley and Slee (1950), Mills (1952), and Hanbury Brown and Hazard (1953). Quoted position uncertainties were typically 0.5 to 2 degrees; even more discouraging, in overlapping regions the surveys seldom agreed. Optical identifications were rare and of varying degrees of acceptance, and in any case were about evenly split between galaxies (e.g., M31, Cyg A, Vir A) and galactic objects (e.g., Tau A = the Crab nebula, Cas A). And why were so many bright galaxies and gaseous nebulae not detected in the radio? Were there two classes of source, as suggested by Bernard Mills? If the bulk of the sources were extragalactic, what was their source of prodigious radio luminosity and why was it so much larger than the Milky Way's? If the background consisted of radio stars with a Population II distribution, was there also an isotropic extragalactic background component, as modelled by Jan Oort and Gart Westerhout (1950)? What in fact was the radiation mechanism for the sources and the background - free-free (but of what optical thickness?), synchrotron (but did the cosmic ray electrons exist?), or something else?

Program listing for Wednesday