February 3, 2010 /
January 3, 1996 /

Ben Gascoigne, a young New Zealand physicist, stepped off the train at Canberra station. It was August 1941. A tall, good-looking man strode across the platform to greet him.

‘Woolley’ he said, offering his hand, ‘Do you play bridge?’.

That evening Ben Gascoigne found himself seated at a bridge table in Woolley’s residence at the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO), atop Mount Stromlo, some fifteen kilometres south-west of the nation’s bush capital.1 Richard van der Reit Woolley had been appointed Director of the CSO less than two years before, in December 1939.2 At the age of 33, Woolley had arrived in Australia, direct from the ancient halls of Cambridge, determined to breathe new life into the observatory, which had languished for ten years without a permanent head. Cla Allen, one of observatory’s astronomers, wrote excitedly that Woolley was determined ‘to make the CSO an observatory of which the Empire can be proud’3. War, however, had put these plans on hold. Read MoreA wartime observatory observed

  1. The name changed in 1943 to ‘Commonwealth Observatory’, however, CSO is used throughout this article. For the history of the CSO generally during the Woolley era see: S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo: the Woolley Era’, Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia, vol. 5, no. 4, 1984, pp. 597-605; S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Bok, Woolley and Australian Astronomy’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 1992, 119-126; R. Woolley, ‘Mount Stromlo Observatory’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vo1. 1, no. 3, November 1968, pp. 53-57. []
  2. William McCrea, ‘Richard van der Reit Woolley’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 7, no. 3, 1988, pp. 315-345 []
  3. Diary entry, 5 December 1939, vol. 16, C.W. Allen papers, National Library of Australia, MS7360. []