June 27, 2004

Jocelyn Bell, the woman who discovered pulsars

After discovering an inexplicable pulsing signal (a "sniggling quarter inch" blip that showed up for 5 min/day) in her PhD radio astronomy data (thousands of feet of paper charts) at Cambridge, Jocelyn Bell and her adviser Tony Hewish, wondered if it was a stellar phenomenon or some man-made interference. If the signal was indeed real, its source was unknown to science at that time. They took to calling it "little green men."

There was a meeting just beofre Christmas 1967 which I stumbled upon. I went down to Tony's office to ask him something and unusually, the door was shut. I knocked and a voice said, "Come in." I stuck my head around the door and Tony said "Ah, Jocelyn, come in and shut the door." So I went in and shut the door. It was a discussion between Tony Hewish (my supervisor), Martin Ryle (the head of the Group), and probably John Shakshaft (one of the other senior members of the Group). The discussion was along the lines of "how do we publish this result?"
Then the night before leaving for Christmas break, Bell locked herself in the lab, pored over her data, and found another signal in another part of the sky, confirming that the signal was not caused by human interference.
I went off on holiday and came back to the lab wearing an engagement ring. That was the stupidest thing I ever did. In those days, married women did not work...My appearance wearing an engagement ring signalled that I was exiting from professional life. Incidentally, it is interesting to notice that people were much more willing to congratulate me on my engagement than congratulate me on making a major astrophysical discover. Society felt that in getting engaged I was doing the right thing for a young woman. In discovering pulsars, I wasn't...
In 1968, Ryle called Nature and told them to "hold the presses." "Observation of a Rapidly Pulsating Radio Source," listed Bell and Hewish and two other colleagues as authors, although current citations differ on who was lead author.

What IS certain, however, is that Ryle and Hewish were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974, Hewish for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars." Although some argue differently, Bell is widely thought to have been robbed of a Nobel Prize. She is currently Dean of Science at the University of Bath.

Bell's fascinating first-hand account of the discovery was reprinted in the June 2004 issue of Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy, which is published by the American Astronomical Society [PDF only].

In her telling, the N-word never comes up, even indirectly, but it looms large as day-to-day details of the players' actions and theories build up. The excerpts above are about as close as Bell comes to explaining why she thinks she didn't share the Nobel.

The only woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics was Marie Curie in 1903, for discovering radiation. (She won again for Chemistry in 1911, for discovering radium.)

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: June 27, 2004.

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