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.

6 thoughts on “Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

  1. So we now have two women whose important work on immensely important problems was ignored by the Nobel Committee: Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA is the other.

    I wonder how many more will be uncovered.

  2. Yes, I was also interested by the seemingly unfair leaving out at prizegiving business, and reminded of Rosalind Franklin!! Particularly puzzling was that her supervisor seemed at once to say that it was all due to the set up (that presumably he’d devised) and that anyone would have picked up on it – yet at the same time it was reported that he initially dismissed the findings as observation error… Come to think of it, Crick (or was it Watson – one of the two, anyway) was only a PhD student… I know enough of science to see the argument that the work is often in the set-up and thinking out of the project, not the actual research, but attribution of discovery (and authorship, for that matter) is very shifty business and probably fertile grounds for implicit biases to affect things in ways that they shouldn’t… I am sure there are more cases.
    Anyway, I am glad you put it up as a post – I thought it should be up here when I watched it last night!

  3. Yes – I think it was the fact that he’d dismissed it as observation error, and she spent so long poring over all those long read-outs that made it clear she’d had a key role in the discovery – whether or not her supervisor had designed the set-up.

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