I enjoyed listening to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell being interviewed by Jim Al-Khalili on The Life Scientific, although sorry that it was dominated by her difficulties as a woman scientist in a man’s world, and her famous – or rather infamous – failure to receive the Nobel Prize.
In the early ‘seventies while at Southampton University, I attended Jocelyn Bell’s lecture on pulsars – which she had discovered just a few years previously while a PhD student at Cambridge. Painstaking attention to detail in the analysis of signals from a radio telescope had found some unidentified ‘fuzz’ which her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, dismissed as artificial and earthly in origin. She persisted, and found other signals, named LGM1, LGM2 etc. (Little Green Men); the signals were quite definitely interstellar, and so regular that they were thought initially to have been artificial.
Soon, the signals were identified as emanating from a new type of astronomical object, a rapidly rotating neutron star henceforth known as a Pulsar. Hewish, received the Nobel Prize for the work; Jocelyn Bell did not. Hewish was unrepentant; his justification was something like: he was the captain of the ship, Jocelyn Bell was just the lookout who first saw the uncharted land …
It was sad that in a half-an-hour programme, so much time was spent on Jocelyn Bell’s difficulties in academia – she was ragged during lectures at Glasgow University (because she was female), and Jodrell Bank would not take her on as a postgraduate student because Bernard Lovell had decreed: No Women!
History though will judge her generously; she will always be known as the person who discovered pulsars – and was denied the Nobel prize for it. She will join the ranks of great women scientists largely ignored in their lifetimes – Henrietta Leavitt who discovered the relationship between luminosity and period in Cepheid Variable stars which enabled Hubble to discover the expansion of the universe and Rosalind Franklin whose X-ray diffraction images enabled Watson and Crick to discover the double helix.
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs