Saturday 20 September 2014

Star Boks

Priscilla Fairfield grew up in Littleton, Massachusetts and went to college at my Alma Mater, Boston University.  She was mad about telescopes and stars and did some important early work with Harlow Shapley on RR Lyrae variable stars.  These had been discovered by Mina Fleming and were and are important "standard candles" for determining astronomical distance.  The hypothesis is that certain classes of stars will have the same actual luminosity, so their observed brightness will tell you how far away they are - dimmer = distant.  Damned clever, if you ask me; and hard work.  In 1928 at the age of 32, Priscilla went to the meeting of the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) Third General Assembly in Leiden, Nederland. By ship - 5 days there and 5 days back! The foreign guests were assigned a local minder, in Priscilla's case a Dutch graduate student called Bart Bok. Young Bart fell for this 'older woman' [by ten years] big time and pursued her across the Atlantic, abandonning his own PhD work to secure her hand in marriage.  He also managed to wangle a job with Shapley, which paid money.  Shapley was happy enough to have women work for him but not so willing to pay them a salary.

The couple had a couple of children and Priscilla was a stay-at-home-mom for the next 20 years but that didn't mean that her brain turned off or was subsumed by diapers and lemon cheesecake and making sure Bart's slippers were ready when he came home from work.  They were a single-salary two-minds team all through this time, described as "it is difficult and pointless to separate his achievements from hers". This is not dissimilar to the much more famous sibling astronomers William and Caroline Herschel Apart from numerous papers at the cutting edge, they also published a popular astronomy book called The Milky Way which ran through five sell-out editions. Collaborating on the book was a bit of a ding-dong process, with Priscilla holding the line for ordinary folk who didn't speak the arcane language of astronomers. Every author benefits from having a different head ruthlessly read and re-write their words.

Bart was appointed Director of the Mt Stromlo Observatory outside Canberra, Australia in 1957 and they spent ten years in this outback community of astronomers.  The whole complex was destroyed in January 2003 when the local forests went up in smoke in the Canberra Fire-Storm which swept through 70% of landscape, the region including 500 homes in suburban Canberra.  But that was long after the Boks had left Australia - indeed long after the Boks had left the planet.

After Priscilla and then Bart died, the Priscilla and Bart Bok Awards were instituted by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific ASP and the American Astronomical Society AAS at an annual science fair.  These prizes are really important for recognising, rewarding and encouraging young scientists.  Like our SciFest at The Institute. As we tentatively move out of the recession, smart young people will be seduced by other careers which are better rewarded financially but will never be as exciting scientifically.  In 2013, one of the Bok Prizes went to a high-school student from Bratislava called Michaela Brchnelova for her work on periodic fluctuations of distant X-ray emitters. It looks like Slovak names are as parsimonious with vowels as Irish names (Aoife etc.) are generous.  Michaela may be young but she is clever and sassy and works hard to make her science (and the most exciting scientific event this century) better understood although "my first language is R, C++ and Python". That attempt to broach the ivory tower is strongly in the tradition of the Boks and what all scientists should devote more time to: Joe Public pays our salaries and funds the equipment and consumables on which big science depends. Michaela is also gutsy and has a sense of humor: this year she applied for a prestigious internship at CERN for the second time around.  She composed her personal statement in rhyming couplets and found that the hard bitten scientists appreciated poetry. You are going to hear more of this woman and not just on The Blob.

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