Monday 15 July 2013

Jocelyn Bell Burnell turns 70

Continuing an occasional series on inspirations (Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock) for young wimmin in science, let's celebrate Jocelyn Bell Burnell's 70th birthday which falls today.  JBB is perhaps the most widely discussed case of not getting a Nobel Prize which she could/should have shared with her supervisor Tony Hewish and his boss Martin Ryle for the discovery of pulsars. The wags dubbed 1974's the No-Bell Prize in Physics for "pioneering research in radio astrophysics".

JBB was definitely a pioneer in the sense of a military engineer because the early part of of her PhD programme with Hewish required her to help whack hundreds of wooden posts into a 4 acre field outside Cambridge, then string wires from these posts so that they became the Interplanetary Scintillation Array which Hewish had dreamed up and secured funding for as a way to measure high-frequency fluctuations of radio sources - aka quasars - Out There.  Swinging a sledge-hammer was only the start of JBB's contribution to the project.  She was also required to scrutinize and analyse a hundred feet of computer printout generated each day. 

One day, she noticed a quarter-inch "bit of scruff" on the printout and thought it was interesting enough to tell Hewish about.  He said the scruff must be man-made and told her to ignore it and please stay focussed on her project. He was certainly focussed on the project: he had a hypothesis, he'd asked a cash-strapped British government for a mort o' money and he was using it to get the data to test that hypothesis.  There were deadlines to meet, a thesis to write and this was no time for side-lines.  But JBB just couldn't leave the bit of scruff, it was nagging at her,  so she went back to the printouts after hours when Hewish had gone home, and got out her ruler and saw that the scruff appeared regularly with a frequency of just under one blip per second.

What she had discovered was the first known pulsar, which later turned out to be a neutron star:  a dense gravitationally collapsed once-upon-a-star that crams the mass of our sun into an incredibly fast revolving sphere 10-20km across, emitting strong electromagnetic pulses as it turns.

In the summer before she came to Cambridge, JBB had held a Summer internship at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope near Manchester.  There, she had been required to do a lot of arithmetic because the main-frame computer in Manchester was always fritzing out or being used for other work. So she'd built up her math-muscle then as she built her red-meat muscle with the post driving. Soon enough, because she worked very hard and was diligent and mathematically competent, she discovered the second, third and fourth pulsars, and was able to convince Hewish that what she had discovered was much more interesting than what Hewish had been looking for.  It took them a lot more time to establish that these pulsing scruffs were genuinely Out There and not rogue signals from Pirate Radio, traversing earth-orbit satellites or sparks from an arc-welder down the road.  One of the top Soviet astronomers later sought her out at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union to say: "Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century."

That was 1967, Miss Bell got married the next year and spent the next 20 years trudging round Britain as her husband was posted to one civil service job after another.  Each time they moved, after she had unpacked the tea-chests, sorted out a school for their son, located the shops and the laundrette then she looked around for a local job in astrophysics, because that's what she did; usually part-time, because that's all that was possible. In 1974, there was the No-Bell prize kerfuffle, which seemed to exercise everyone else a lot more than it did her.  Indeed she was delighted about the Nobel because it was the first recognition by that committee for her field of astronomical physics.

She has not been without honour, indeed without honours, in science. She's been given a string of medals and prizes including the quintessentially British CBE, DBE and FRS.  And she's been awarded 20 honorary degrees including one from Trinity College Dublin in 2008.  She spoke then about the brief intense joy (in the idyllic Arthurian Garde-Joyeuse sense) of knowing something that nobody else in the world knew, after she discovered the second pulsar.  Different part of the sky, different frequency, they couldn't both be a malfunctioning thermostat in the lab next door.  That internal satisfaction and hard-won conviction seems to have been much more important to her than the external trappings of recognition and, indeed, fame.

If she'd been a bloke, would she have had to wait more than 30 years between "the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century" and getting a CBE or joining the Boy's Club as Fellow of the Royal Society?  If she'd been a bloke though, she wouldn't have had to put her career on free-wheel while she changed nappies and put plasters on small knees. Someone with less equanimity and more cynicism might suspect that she'd now become Jocelyn Bell Bandwagon as universities fall over themselves to give her honorary degrees.

The thing that far too few people acknowledge about JBB is her 30 year association with the (wonderful, empowering, facilitator of heroes) Open University: first as a tutor because she could do that while working part-time from home and much later as an inspirational Professor of Physics; infamously at the time doubling the number of such Chairs in Britain who had two X chromosomes..  She far more than doubled the number of teacher-researchers (rather than teacher-teachers) in her sector of the OU, because she believed that active researchers made better teachers.  There's much more to this woman than pulsars.

You don't have to be a rocket-scientist to succeed in science - the young Miss Bell failed her 11+ exam and so wasn't eligible for a free Grammar School place under RAB Butler's 1944 Education Act and she didn't get a 1st Class Honours degree from Glasgow.  Would her Upper 2nd Class Honours degree have anything to do with the fact that she was the only woman in a class of 50 taking Physics?  How about the fact that for two years, every time she entered the Physics lecture theatre she was greeted with hoots and cat-calls and coordinated foot-stamping?  Her response?  She learned quickly to control her blushing and got on with the physics.  The men who participated in this ritualised bullying, and not only in Glasgow, will also be about 70 now, and only a few of them will have joined the dinosaurs underground.

It helps if you have supportive parents who won't accept that at school boys do science-science and girls do domestic-science.  An inspiring science teacher also makes a huge difference - Henry Tillott in JBB's case.  You have to be prepared to work hard, with a pick-axe and wire-strippers if that's what it takes, or with a slide rule and deep maths if that is required.  Being at home with numbers and order-of-magnitude is useful: "I guess what I’m saying is, even in that first exam I had learnt to check that my answers seemed sensible, that when I came up with a numerical value, that it was reasonable, whatever reasonable means". You have to put in long hours . . . after the working day and at weekends if necessary.  You have to be able to park your certainties and see things with a fresh eye. You have to be agreeable . . . but not a push-over - some assertiveness training will help you hold your corner against authority figures when it matters.  OTOH, you don't have to treat kids and career as an either/or choice.  Juggling family and science is hard work but so is twirling a sledge-hammer.

Much more detail in a long interview.
The Blob's women in science: Florence Nightingale - Barbara McClintock - Maude Delap - Cliona O'Farrelly - Lynn Margulis - Rosalind Franklin - Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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