Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

BBC Four broadcast the first* in a series of four interviews with great minds of our time last night. The interviewee was Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars whilst conducting her PhD research. The discovery of pulsars made it possible to verify certain aspects of Einstein’s Theory, and also made the existence of Black Holes – dismissed by most scientists until then – more likely, as Stephen Hawking went on to argue. As well as being a brilliant scientist, Professor Bell Burnell is also a female scientist, who trained at a time when women typically did not do science. She describes being an undergraduate at Glasgow University, where she was the only woman on her course, and when she walked into lectures, her fellow students banged the desks, whistled, and cat-called. When she did her PhD at Cambridge, she states she had almost free choice of topic. There was only one she wasn’t allowed to do because apparently it was deemed to involve too much manual labour for a woman. Professor Bell Burnell’s research involved scanning the night sky for radio signals, using a huge ‘telescope’ of masts and wires that she built almost singlehandedly in a field in Cambridgeshire. The signal was inscribed on several metres of paper each day, which then had to be analysed by ‘eye’ – there were no computers to process the data. Her meticulous scrutiny of the readout led her to identify a strange pulsing signal, which came from the same location in the sky each time it appeared. Her supervisor originally dismissed it as earthly interference, but Professor Bell Burnell was not convinced, and continued to collect data that eventually proved she was right: the strange pulsing signal was coming from space. Her supervisor and another senior member of the department eventually won the Nobel Prize for the research, which many think should also have been awarded to Bell Burnell. She also talks in this documentary about being a Quaker, and how she sees her faith as connected with her scientific research.

*Sorry non-UK folks – I suspect this BBC Four programme may only be available in the UK.