Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.
by Jacqui Farnham
In February 1968, a last minute paper was rushed into Volume 217 of the scientific journal Nature. The paper detailed the discovery of a completely new kind of star, a type of celestial object that had previously been utterly unknown to astronomers. It was a revelation that shook the world of astrophysics and preceded a new way of thinking about the Universe. But the momentous discovery described in the paper was not its only surprise. Up in the top left hand corner of the front page were the names of the authors, and one of them was a woman: Jocelyn Bell. Though it was not completely unknown, a woman author on a scientific paper was quite a novelty. Science, and science journals simply were not the normal habitat of women in the 1960s. Yet Bell had made an indelible impression on this world of men almost unintentionally.
Born in 1943, Jocelyn Bell was a 25 year old PhD student when that seminal Nature paper was published. She has gone on to have a long and illustrious career in astrophysics, but her interest in the stars began when she was just a child.
The story of Bell’s upbringing is a salutary lesson in how to kindle and set free a youngster’s interests and enthusiasms.
The family lived in Northern Ireland, where her father was an architect with an distinguished career. Amongst many other projects he was responsible for designing the Planetarium at the Armagh Observatory.
Philip Bell had a subscription to a prominent library in Belfast and brought home books on the many topics that interested him. The books that excited Jocelyn’s curiosity were those on astronomy. Weighty tomes by the great names in the field, such as Dennis Sciama and Fred Hoyle, made their way into the household only to kidnapped by Jocelyn, who absorbed everything she could from them. It was the mind-expanding bigness of astronomy that grabbed Jocelyn’s young mind.
Much later she said, “I find it fascinating that with the limited number of snapshots or observations of the sky, we can deduce so much. Not just the evolution of stars and galaxies, but actually the evolution of the whole Universe. How it began and how it will end. Nowhere else in science can you get this big picture. It’s unique to astronomy.”
Shooting stars and satellites
Jocelyn’s fascination with the stars was encouraged by her mother and father. Far from the stuffy, almost Victorian parenting of some of their contemporaries, the Bell children were blessed with parents who wanted their offspring to open their eyes to the world around them.
When the Russians launched the first Sputnik spacecraft in 1957, Philip Bell woke his children from their beds to see the pin-prick of light sail across in the night sky; and he patiently explained the difference between shooting stars and this revolutionary satellite. So embedded did these Russian spacecraft become in the life of the family, that they even called one of their cats Vostok.
The Russian Space Program had a profound effect on Jocelyn Bell’s life and career. When the Soviets launched those first satellites, their cold war enemies watched in shock and horror. Europe and the United States had no idea that Russia was capable of creating and launching these futuristic spacecraft. The faint blips from the tiny satellites struck fear into the hearts of the British and Americans. In schools across the Western world, science classes took on a new sheen and funding flowed more freely. The next generation of scientists needed to be encouraged and brought forward, so a new emphasis was placed on science lessons and science teachers.
Let’s not forget though, that this was the 1950s. Science might have been cool, but few teachers thought that girls should be included in this new wave of technological learning.
At the end of her primary school education, Jocelyn failed the critical 11-plus exam that children at the time took to decide which type of school they could attend. Despite this setback, her parents persuaded the headteacher at the prestigious local grammar school, Lurgan College, to admit her. Here, she got her first taste of the prejudices that ranged against many young women of her generation. In week one of the new term, on a Wednesday afternoon, a message was circulated around the school asking that all the girls should report to one classroom, whilst the boys must go to another.
“I thought this is sport. This is why they’re segregating us,” she remembers. “But it turned out it wasn’t sport. The boys were sent to the science lab and the girls to the domestic science room. The assumption was that the girls would do domestic science and the boys would do science. We weren’t even asked, it was just the assumption.”
The assumption was wrong, and it did not go down well in the Bell household. The school was promptly informed that Jocelyn would be attending science classes. Next Wednesday afternoon, Jocelyn was one of three girls whose parents had kicked up enough fuss for them to be allowed entry to the hallowed ground of the science lab. She repaid her parents’ persistence by coming top of the class in the subsequent science exam. This thrilling result came just 6 months after Jocelyn had failed her 11 plus, and gave her a valuable boost in confidence. When asked years later why, given her obvious intelligence, she thought she had failed the 11 plus she quipped, “there’s no science in the 11 plus”.
Lurgan College had had a more enlightened approach thrust upon them by the parents of a few girls, but Jocelyn’s next school was not so slow in encouraging their female students in science. Aged 13, Jocelyn was sent far from home to board at the Mount School in York. Here, physics was taught by a venerable teacher who had a huge influence on Jocelyn’s attitude to the subject.
Mr Tillott had been brought out of retirement to teach the young ladies at the Mount and he was a boon to the teenaged Jocelyn. Though science and astronomy had always been her interest, it was Mr Tillott’s clarity of teaching that drew her down the path towards an academic career in physics. She says, “I remember him teaching us that once you’d got a grip on physics, you only need to learn relatively few facts and then you can build on that. You can develop a long, long way from relatively few bits of information in the first place. And that economy appealed to me.”
Physics was so attractive to Jocelyn that at the end of her secondary education she applied to study the subject at Glasgow University. There she sailed through her first undergraduate degree and promptly elected to take an extra, year-long course to attain an Honours degree in physics. She was the only female student to apply for the course. Again she found that her gender was going to be an issue, and not just from the men around her: Some of her female colleagues were resistant to her choice of subject. “I remember going back to my hall of residence at lunchtime that first day and saying I think I’m the only woman doing physics and they said, ‘Oh you’ll be changing course then, Jocelyn’, which hadn’t occurred to me.”
Jocelyn did not change her subject, but she faced steep opposition from the male students. Each time she entered the physics lecture theatre, the boys who had reached their seats before her wolf-whistled and jeered and banged their desks. This kind of reception beggars belief in today’s world, but in the 1960s there was little Jocelyn could do except to control her reaction to it. She says, “I had to learn not to blush because if you blush, they do it more noisily.”
Of course, she could have belatedly changed her degree course or dropped out completely, but that was not an option she considered. Physics, and astrophysics in particular, had become Jocelyn’s chosen path and nothing would deflect her.
There was one slight problem though, which came not from external opposition to her choice of career, but from her own internal body clock. As determined as she was to pursue astronomy and physics, she also knew that she was not capable of staying up all night to peer through telescopes. A decade or two earlier, any astronomer who could not keep their eyes open after dark would not have amounted to much. But this was the 1960s and technology came to Jocelyn’s rescue in the form of the relatively new field of radio astronomy.
Emerging largely out of World War II technology, radio astronomy was a burgeoning field when Jocelyn Bell finished her Honours degree at Glasgow University. Unlike optical telescopes, which observe the light from objects in the night sky; radio telescopes capture signals emanating in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The signals from the telescopes are recorded constantly, day and night. The records are stored and the data can be studied at any convenient time. This new field was perfect for a student who preferred day time observations.
The quasar question
In 1965 Jocelyn Bell successfully applied to study for a doctorate with the University of Cambridge’s new Radio Astronomy Group. She was assigned to work with Dr Antony Hewish, a researcher with a particular interest in far off galaxies that strongly emitted electromagnetic radiation that could be picked up by radio telescopes. These distant galaxies, known as quasars, held the promise that they might tell us more about the dynamic expansion of the Universe, and Hewish was keen to find and study as many as possible. His search was frustrated by the fact that no radio telescope had so far been built in Cambridge that could adequately search for quasars. Now though Hewish had an enthusiastic PhD student to help him and he set Bell to work building a telescope that was up to the job.
A site was chosen at the Mullard Observatory, a large expanse of fields outside Cambridge that was already home to a range of other radio telescopes. The quasar telescope, however, was unlike any other optical or radio telescope in the world. It consisted of 120 miles of wiring, strung up on wooden posts that covered an area the size of 57 tennis courts. This vast array would act like a massive antenna recording faint radio signals from outer space.
Bell spent two years constructing the telescope to Hewish’s design. Each day she would buzz out to the observatory on a small scooter and set to work. In the heat of summer and the chill of winter Bell wielded her sledgehammer, her wire cutters and her pliers and constructed the telescope with the help of a small team. Finally, in early 1967, the array was finished and it was time to switch it on. To much rejoicing, the antenna worked first time and the recordings began to come in immediately.
The observations made by the telescope were recorded in a small laboratory that sat amidst the Mullard Observatory telescopes. Machines fed long paper charts into pen recorders to record the data. As the quasar telescope scanned the sky that passed above it, the paper scrolled under the pen, and each time a quasar was observed the pen twitched in a specific and recognisable way which showed up on the chart rather like a heart beat showing up on a cardiac monitor. Each day Bell would change the paper charts, taking the previous rolls back to her office in Cambridge to be checked.
The astronomy PhD students all shared an office in a loft atop one of the University buildings in the town centre. With desks down each side, under the eaves, and a central gangway running down the middle; the loft was the perfect place for Bell to study the long paper charts. One of Bell’s contemporaries at Cambridge, astronomer Craig Mackay, remembers her particular technique for viewing the rolls of charts. “Jocelyn would come in with the rolls of paper and stand at one end and bowl the paper rolls down the middle of the room and then get down on her knees to study them. If she found something interesting we would all get down and look at it.”
The interesting ‘somethings’ Bell was searching for, were the specific pen markings which would denote a quasar galaxy. It was no mean feat to find them. The pen recorders churned through 96 feet of paper every single day and spotting the very particular signature of a quasar was a tough job.
The pen recorder did not simply record straight lines with quasars beautifully displayed so that they could be picked out with ease. In fact, the pen lines were naturally jagged and they contained not only the signatures of quasars but also numerous squiggles caused by radio interference. The telescope array had to be incredibly sensitive to pick up the faint radio signals of the far off galaxies, and that meant it was also susceptible to picking up other, Earthly traffic. Pirate radio broadcasts showed up on the paper records, along with aircrafts signals and even bursts of activity from police radios. In amongst these spurious squiggles Bell had to look out for the very specific signatures of quasars.
A strange signal
About a month after she had begun to operate the quasar telescope, Bell was diligently inspecting her paper rolls as normal, when she spotted something unusual. It was a spike in the pen line that did not look like a quasar, but did not look like interference either. Bell noted the spike with a question mark and moved on. There was no time to waste since the telescope was running constantly and it was all Bell could do to keep up with the data it produced.
The telescope scanned the sky at intervals and a complete scan of the whole sky could be made in one week. Then the process began again with another complete scan of the sky. As the work progressed, Bell spotted the quasars with great accuracy and it seemed that the project was going to be a success. But before long, she noticed another unusual spike on one of her paper rolls. Curious, she noted it with another question mark and wondered where she might have seen something similar before.
It was not difficult to find out. Bell was a rigorous record keeper, storing the rolls of paper that corresponded to different portions of the sky in shoe boxes in her loft office. It was the work of few moments to pull out the box that contained the records for the same part of the sky and she quickly found that from time to time this same spike did show up as the telescope scanned that particular area. After a few more months Bell had collected enough strange spikes in the same celestial area to be curious about what the signals might be. So she took her paper charts to Hewish to ask him what he thought.
Hewish was curious too, and asked Bell to investigate further. One of the problems with working out what the signal could be was that it showed up as a very small spike. Each time it appeared the scrappy spike occupied less than a quarter of an inch on the paper chart, so it was decided that an enlargement should be made. To enlarge a signal was easy. The pen recorder simply had to be speeded up so that more paper travelled under the pen at the appropriate time — this would give Hewish and Bell a better idea of what they were looking at.
For several weeks, Bell went out to the observatory at the appropriate time and speeded up the recorder to see what would happen. For a whole month nothing happened at all. The spike seem to have disappeared. But Bell was diligent and she kept looking for the signal. Finally, on the 28th November 1967, Bell’s patience was rewarded. What she saw as the paper rolled beneath the pen at high speed and the signal came in was utterly surprising. It did not appear as the scruffy spike it had been before. It showed up as a sequence of regularly spaced blips, that came in just over a second apart. Intrigued, Bell switched the recorder back to its normal setting and took the unprecedented step of telephoning Hewish back in Cambridge.
Hewish, intent on finding twinkling quasars, was not interested in the tiny pulsing blips. He remembers clearly that he had little time for Bell’s news. “I said don’t be stupid it has to be radio interference.”
He had good reason to be dismissive. In the world of astrophysics, regularly spaced pulsing blips emitted from celestial bodies were simply unknown. In Hewish’s mind the signal had to be human in origin.
Nevertheless, there was one indication that suggested the blips were not made by humans. The human world and the celestial world keep very different timings. Humans, by and large, rise in the morning and go to bed at night and, at least in the 1960s, manmade radio signals generally kept time with normal waking hours. The sky, by contrast, has its own momentum. Sidereal time, as it is known, keeps pace with the duration of the Earth’s rotation relative to the fixed positions of the stars in the sky. Because of Bell’s precise record keeping, she was able to show that the intermittent spikes showed up in the same part of the sky each time they appeared, regardless of the time of day. So they did not run on Earthly time. Instead they seemed to correspond to a fixed point amongst the stars and to conform to sidereal time. This made them far harder to explain away as human generated interference.
Is the signal real?
After some months, Dr Hewish decided to end the speculation over the blips once and for all by looking for the signal with another telescope. If the pulsing signal could be detected by a different telescope, this would eliminate the possibility that Bell had made a mistake with the quasar telescope.
A day was set for the test and Bell, Hewish and a number of other members of the Radio Astronomy Group gathered in the laboratory at the observatory to view the blips appearing live on the quasar telescope. Right on time, the pulses showed up on Bell and Hewish’s telescope. Satisfied that the signal was coming in clearly, the group moved across the lab to the pen recorder that was attached to the other telescope. Because of the relative positions of the two telescopes, the same part of the sky was due to be scanned several minutes later. So the small group of researchers waited quietly for the signal to show up. For Bell, there was a lot at stake and she watched eagerly, sure that the pulses would appear, but equally frightened that they wouldn’t.
The appointed time came and went. Nothing happened. The other telescope had not picked up Bell’s signal. She knew that this must mean she had made a terrible error and, as one of the most junior member of staff, it was an uncomfortable feeling.
Hewish and the other researchers walked away from the pen recorder and began to speculate about possible explanations for the signal’s no show. Bell tagged along after them, but one student stayed behind to watch the recorder. As the group were about to leave the laboratory, the student shouted that something was coming through. They rushed back to the pen recorder and there it was – the same pulsing signal that Bell had seen on the quasar telescope. The team had miscalculated when the signal would show up in the alternative telescope by five minutes. As Bell says, it was fortunate that they had only been wrong by five minutes, “If we’d been out by a longer interval we might have all given up and gone home and life would have been very, very different.”
As it was, there was now no doubt: The signal had to be real.
Little green men
This proof was not the end of the confusion for Hewish and Bell. They still had no idea where the blips might be coming from. No celestial body had ever been known to emit regular pulses so the idea that it would be a star or galaxy was pretty much ruled out. Within the Cambridge Radio Astronomy Group an unusual idea took hold. If the signal came from the heavens, and if it pulsed regularly like a manmade signal, then perhaps they had stumbled upon the historic discovery of an extraterrestrial alien beacon.
The idea is not so crazy as it may sound. The chances of aliens being present somewhere in the galaxy had only recently been estimated by Frank Drake, an astronomer working at NASA’s Jet Propulsions Labs in California. Extraterrestrial intelligence was seen as a highly probable possibility. So why not find a beacon far out beyond the galaxy?
The idea was unsettling for the head of the Radio Astronomy Group, Professor Martin Ryle. Only half joking, he wondered aloud to Hewish whether they should not just burn the records. Ryle was worried about what might happen if the news got out. “People like Drake will want to launch a signal,” Ryle told Hewish, “And supposing all they are doing is looking for a reply? Perhaps they are over crowded and are looking for a nice green planet. The next thing you know, you’ll be invaded.” Ryle may have been joking, but the worry was not completely unreasonable.
Bell meanwhile was getting cross. The signals might have assumed huge importance for some members of the Group, but Bell just wanted to get on with her PhD. Instead she was having to worry about “Little Green Men” as the signals had now been dubbed. After a frustrating meeting about the pulses that went on into the evening, she returned to her desk in her loft office and tried to catch up with all the quasar work she had been forced to neglect. Now 2000 feet behind in her work, she was determined to catch up, whatever the “aliens” might do to intervene.
It was late December and it was cold and dark, but Bell got down to work. She was analysing a completely different piece of sky from the one that had yielded the “Little Green Men” pulses, but at about 9.45pm, Bell spotted something that stopped her in her tracks. It was a small signal that did not look like a twinkling quasar and did not look like interference. Once more she turned to her carefully organised boxes and checked back through her records to see if it had been there before. Once more she found that, at times, the signal had been there.
Filled with excitement, Bell checked the telescope’s schedule. That part of the sky was due to pass through the beam of the telescope at 3am that very morning. Even though it meant a trip to the observatory in the freezing weather on her little scooter, Bell decided that she had to venture out and check the signal.
At the observatory, it was even colder and the telescope was only operating at half strength as it tended to do when the temperature plummeted. Nevertheless, Bell waited for the right moment and then switched the pen recorder to its high speed setting to see what would happen. There was a lot at stake. If there was another pulsing signal coming from another part of the sky then the theory about aliens would evaporate. It was hardly likely that two sets of “Little Green Men” would have suddenly sent out a beacon at the same time from completely different parts of the sky. Finding another similar signal would not exactly solve the riddle but it would certainly narrow down the options.
Holding her breath she waited to see if her telescope would play ball.
“In it came,” she remembers. “Blip, blip, blip. That was great, that was really sweet.”
A celestial origin
Bell was now convinced that the pulses must originate from some sort of celestial object and not from intelligent alien life. She hunted back through her records to see if there were any other signals and to her surprise she found that she began to spot the spikes in other places in her records. By January 1968 she had found four individual signals in total. It was at this point that Antony Hewish began to contemplate the kinds of stellar objects that might fit the observations Bell had made. He knew that the object in question must be very small because it was pulsing at intervals of a second and only a very small object could move that quickly. But he also knew that the object must be large because it was emitting radio waves that were strong enough to travel huge distances to get to Earth.
In his reference books Hewish found a theory presented by a Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky, that he thought had merit. In the ‘30s Zwicky had put forward the idea that when some stars die they collapse to form incredibly dense spheres composed purely of neutrons. It was something of a crazy idea and Zwicky himself had a reputation for being somewhat wacky so the theory had not gained many followers.
Hewish though, and his boss Martin Ryle, thought that the signals Bell had found might actually be Zwicky’s hypothetical neutron stars.
All celestial object spin; so neutron stars, if they existed, would certainly spin. Because they were very small, they would spin very fast, but because they were highly energetic they might also be capable of producing powerful radio emissions. This was what made the idea persuasive: Neutron stars were both small and large at the same time. They were small in size but large in energy. And it was possible that they might emit pulsing signals. If a neutron star was emitting radio waves, say from magnetic poles tilted away from the axis of rotation, then in theory the signature they would display when the radio waves reached Earth would be fast radio pulses just like the ones Bell had found.
This idea was just one of the possibilities, but as soon as the Radio Astronomy Group had got their collective heads around the various theories they had, a paper was prepared and submitted to Nature. The editor, John Maddox, by rights should have rejected it since it arrived after the deadline for Volume 217. But Martin Ryle telephoned Maddox to warn him to look out for the paper and Maddox squeezed it in.
The paper made a huge splash. If the theory was correct and the fabled neutron stars really did exist, then all kinds of other types of stellar remnants might also be possible. Black holes, which existed theoretically but had not yet gained wide credence, began to seem much more feasible.
Andy Fabian, a prominent British astronomer remembers well the excitement that radiated through the science community. “All of a sudden people went from thinking about stars being unchanging, the universe being relatively dull and boring, to suddenly the universe being full of these things flickering and flashing around.”
It was an exciting time. These new kinds of stars were named “pulsars” and within a year a consensus was reached that they were indeed a type of neutron star that emitted radio waves from their magnetic poles. Amongst astrophysicists pulsars became the hottest topic for exploration.
The mainstream media were also excited by the prospect of a new type of star, but the story really took off when it emerged that the pulses had, at first, been mistaken for aliens; and when it was revealed that a woman researcher was involved. Soon news outlets were climbing over each other to run the story.
Antony Hewish became am overnight TV star, and Jocelyn Bell was interviewed for everything from children’s programmes to news bulletins. Not all the questions Hewish and Bell received were alike though. Hewish was asked what pulsars were, how many there might be and how far away. By contrast, Bell was asked about her appearance. How tall was she: was she taller or shorter than Princess Margaret? Was her natural hair colour blonde or brunette? (No other colours were allowed.) How many boyfriends did she have? What were her vital statistics? These were questions which left her feeling uncomfortable, but about which she feared she could not complain.
The No Bell Prize
The media spotlight was bright and blinding, but it was also brief. Hewish went back to his research, albeit in neutron stars now as much as in quasars. Bell got her PhD and got married, becoming Dr Bell Burnell. She did not stop working though. Her husband’s job caused him to move around the country from time to time but wherever the family fetched up, Bell Burnell applied to the local academic institutions and took jobs that stimulated and interested her. She even decided not to stop working when her son, Gavin came along in 1969.
This decision, once again, singled her out as being different from many of the women around her, who did not work. Bell Burnell recalls facing questions from other mothers about her decisions. “I can remember one of my neighbours at one point saying, Jocelyn you’ve got a new baby, a new house, a husband, why do you say you’re bored? I think my wanting to work was actually indirectly challenging a decision that she had not consciously taken, to be a housewife.” Such questions did not deter Bell Burnell from pursuing her career.
In 1974, seven years after Bell Burnell had first spotted the faint signals from outer space, she was part of a team working on a space observatory that was designed to monitor X-ray signatures from stars. The rocket carrying the space observatory went up on October 15th launched from a platform in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Kenya. No sooner had the launch been successfully completed, than one of Jocelyn’s colleagues ran into her office in high excitement asking if she had “heard the news”. Jocelyn’s immediate thought was that something had gone wrong with the rocket, but it was a very different piece of news: The Nobel prize awards had been announced and the Physics prize had, for the very first time, been awarded in the field of astronomy. The prize was for the discovery of pulsars and it had been given to Antony Hewish and his boss Martin Ryle.
Bell Burnell was delighted to hear that the discovery in which she had played such a key role had been chosen by the Nobel committee.
Hewish too was thrilled by the announcement. “I was at a very dull meeting in London,” he says, “and a clerk came in and gave me a sort of scruffy hand written note to say there’s been a telephone call from Cambridge that I’d won the Nobel Prize. I nearly fell backwards out of my chair.”
Bell Burnell herself made it clear to her colleagues that she was happy for Hewish and Ryle, but some scientists were not so pleased. Amongst others, the famous astronomer Fred Hoyle was furious that Bell Burnell had not been named.
Her fellow PhD student Craig, now Professor, MacKay was equally disappointed. “I was saddened that Jocelyn Bell had not received an equal recognition for her contribution which I think was absolutely central and I think there were many people who were very sad and thought that she should have been up there with the others. So there was a fair amount of disappointment.”
The story of Bell Burnell’s rejection by the Nobel committee was, for a short time, as big news as the discovery of pulsars had been a few years earlier. “The No Bell Prize” read one memorable headline. The Nobel committee was accused of misogyny and Hewish and Ryle were accused of academic theft. A widely read journal called The Observatory refused to even congratulate Hewish and Ryle on their prize.
Bell Burnell herself though has always and consistently maintained that she would not have expected to be included in the prize. Her view was that, rightly or wrongly, in the 1960s graduate students did not receive the prizes, the heads of the departments did. She says, “At that time we had a rather different picture of how science is done. Previous pictures usually involved a fairly senior man, and it had to be a man, who had under him a team of people, and those people weren’t expected to think, they were just expected to do what he told them. So if that is the correct picture, then it’s reasonable that the head of the group takes the credit, or the blame. These days we have a much more egalitarian picture of a team of people, each contributing from their strengths.”
But regardless of the mores of the day, the question remains whether or not Bell Burnell did in fact deserved to be named on the Nobel Prize award. Antony Hewish has certainly argued that she did not deserve it. His rationale is that the idea for the telescope had been his, and that once that particular telescope had been set up, the discovery of pulsars was inevitable. “I don’t think it would have mattered who’d been my student. It was a serendipitous discovery because such a piece of equipment had been set up,” he says. “My analogy really is a little bit like, when you plan a ship of discovery and you go off and somebody up the mast says land ho, that’s great; but who actually inspired it and conceived it and decided what to do when.”
Hewish’s view seems logical, but it is a highly debatable point as to whether or not a different student would have followed through so diligently as did Bell Burnell. Her erstwhile colleague, Professor MacKay believes Bell Burnell was directly responsible for the discovery. “She kept more meticulous records than perhaps her supervisor would have expected and they provided the core evidence that drove the discovery.” By this reckoning Bell Burnell should most definitely have shared in the prize.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 1974 Nobel award for physics, Bell Burnell feels that she has benefitted as much from not winning the Nobel Prize as her colleagues benefitted from winning it. “You can actually do extremely well out of not getting a Nobel Prize,” she maintains. “I have had so many prizes and so many honours and so many awards, that actually I think I’ve had far more fun than if I’d got a Nobel Prize, which is a bit flash in the pan. You get it, you have a fun week and it’s all over, and nobody gives you anything else after that, because they feel they can’t match it.”
A stellar career
Since the discovery of pulsars in 1967 and the Nobel Prize of 1974, things have undoubtedly moved on for women in science and for women in society. The idea that marriage and children should be barriers that prevent women from entering the work place seems alien in today’s world, and science labs are no longer off limits to women in the way they once were.
Bell Burnell herself has gone on to carve out a stellar career in astrophysics. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s as she followed her husband around the country, she took jobs wherever she could and gained a broad experience in many different areas of astronomy. But when the marriage broke up in late 1980s she began to pursue her interests freely. She chose to study pulsars at the Open University where, in 1991, she became one of the UK’s first woman professors of physics. Since then she has filled a number of the Britain’s most prestigious science positions. Between 2002 and 2004, she was president of the Royal Astronomical Society and she was the first female president of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010. Such roles would have been impossible for a woman to fill 40 years ago.
Professor Bell Burnell is conscious of the fact that she is an important role model for women and that she has been in the vanguard of social change. “My feeling is that in Britain woman older than me, by and large, did not expect to have careers, women younger than me do expect to have careers, and it has been my generation that’s been at the cutting edge, forcing through the change, which is quite uncomfortable in some ways and quite hard work. I’ve had to fight and be fairly determined for a good deal of my career.”
The fight for women in science is one that Professor Bell Burnell thinks is far from over. She now speaks regularly about the issues of women in society and in science. She believes that science is a vitally important endeavour for humankind and that any important endeavour needs to include women in complete equality with men.
Her view is not just that women need to be included because they form half the population and that science will be missing out on a vast resource if it excludes women. Her position is that women bring distinct talents to science that will be missing if they are not included.
“Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males, and women view the conventional wisdom from a different angle, and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument. I’d even go further, and argue that having a more diverse scientific workforce will actually broaden our understanding of what we mean by science.”
Bell Burnell’s view is echoed by many women who have been attracted to and worked within the previously male dominated world of science. If she is right in her interpretation of the role women can play in science, then only once women have been fully accepted in scientific endeavour will science truly come of age.
About the Author
Jacqui Farnham is a British journalist, film maker and writer. She has worked for the BBC for nearly 20 years producing programmes across the corporation’s TV and radio networks. She studied biology at Lancaster University and has mainly covered science since becoming a journalist; but she has also directed business programmes, biographies, channel idents and cookery programmes. She has recently completed a book on the 18th century warship, HMS Victory.