Listen below to the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell as part of the Irish Scientists series which was broadcast on East Coast FM in December 2016
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, pictured on the right, who grew up and was educated in Lurgan, discovered pulsars, a new family of incredibly compact tiny stars back in 1968. It was a discovery that many astronomers believed merited a Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee agreed and a Prize was duly awarded for the discovery in 1974. The problem was the Prize went not to Jocelyn, but to her supervisor.
At the time she made the discovery, 67-year-old Jocelyn (who is still an active researcher) was a 24-year old post-graduate student. She was also a woman. Those things still mattered in science in the 1960s, and might have helped explain why the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded for the pulsar discovery, went to Jocelyn’s male supervisor, Antony Hewish and his senior colleague Martin Ryle. Many astronomers are still unhappy about this decision and have openly suggested that Jocelyn should, at the very least, been a co-recipient of the Prize. That the two prize winners never felt the need to recognise Jocelyn’s work, is a scientific scandal.
It was far from certain that Jocelyn would attain the heights she has attained in science, and she had to overcome many obstacles in her path. She was born inBelfast, but spent most of her first 13 years in Lurgan. She failed the ’11 plus’ exam, the test that children take inBritainandNorthern Irelandbefore entering secondary school. This exam is crucial as it usually determines whether a child is admitted to a ‘grammar school’ where the focus is on getting students to university. Her failure at the 11 plus wasn’t fatal, as she had been attending the Grammar School in Lurgan, and the school agreed to keep her on for a few years before she went off to a boarding school inEngland. However, she did admit much later that the failure ‘shook her’, and she didn’t chose to mention it until she attained the status of Professor.
Looking back today, Jocelyn believes that the 11 plus curriculum at the time didn’t suit her, as she said there wasn’t any science in it. Her scientific ability was certainly obvious when she came top of her class in her first term in secondary school at Lurgan Grammar. However, before that, there was another hurdle to cross. That came when the girls and boys were segregated into two groups in her first year of secondary school. Jocelyn thought that the separation might have ‘something to do with sport’, but was horrified when she realised that the boys were being brought to the science lab, while the girls were being packed off to learn about domestic science. It was the1950s and girls in Lurgan, and all overIreland, north and south, weren’t given any encouragement to do science. Jocelyn’s parents decided to ‘kick up a fuss’ and, as a result she was permitted to join the boys doing science, along with the daughter of a local doctor, and one other girl. It was a close call, andIrelandalmost lost perhaps its most accomplished ever female scientist before she even had a chance to show what she could do.
She finished out her two remaining years in Lurgan Grammar and then it was off toEngland. Jocelyn’s family were Quakers, and there was a family tradition of sending the children to Quaker schools inEngland. Jocelyn attendedMountSchool, inYork. She recalls that it was good to get away from home, though traumatic to begin with. In England, in the Fifties, girls were not discouraged from doing science, so it was a different atmosphere to Ireland. Jocelyn did very well in her studies, despite what she recalls as a mixed standard of science teaching.
She made it through the roller-coaster of her primary and secondary school education to get accepted into Glasgow University to study science. There she did well enough to be accepted to do a PhD in the University of Cambridge, a truly world-class university, choc-a-block with Nobel prize winning scientists, then and now. She began her PhD in 1965, working under the supervision of the aforementioned Hewish. The aim of the research project she was involved with was to find quasars. Jocelyn describes quasars as being “big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot of radio waves”. The idea was to search for quasars by looking at natural sources of radio waves in the cosmos using a telescope array.
An array is a group of linked telescopes, and a special array was constructed for the project at a four-acre site at the Mullard Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge. Jocelyn got stuck into the nitty-gritty of getting the project up and running, and spent her time initially banging stakes into the ground and connecting miles of copper wire. Finally, in July 1967, the array was ready.
Jocelyn began the job of monitoring the sky for rapid fluctuations in radio waves that might indicate the presence of a quasar at a particular location. She had to read through literally miles of paper, and wade through mountains of data, searching for tell-tale signs of a quasar.
On the 6th August 1967, a few weeks after the array came online, Jocelyn noticed something. She described the discovery that would change her life to this reporter in an interview in 2010:
“It was totally accidental. I was doing the research project I had been set very conscientiously and happened across something unexpected. The analogy I use is imagine you are at some nice viewpoint making a video of the sunset and along comes another car and parks in the foreground and it’s got its hazard warning lights, its blinkers on, and it spoils your video. Well my project was looking at quasars, which are some of the most distant things in the universe. [quasars] are big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot
of radio waves, which is what I was picking up. [I was] studying these distant quasars and something in the foreground sort of went ‘yo-hoo’! – not very loudly shall we say it was a pretty faint signal, but it turned out after a lot of checking up, and a lot of persistence to be an incredible kind of new star, which we have called a pulsar – pulsating radio star.”
“They are tiny as stars go, they are only about 10 miles across, but they weigh the same as a typical star so they are very, very compact. The radio waves were coming naturally from some kind of star. We picked up these pulses and they were so unexpected that the first thing you have to do is suspect is that there is something wrong with the equipment, then suspect there is interference and then suspect something else, gradually force yourself to believe that it is something astronomical and it’s out there in the galaxy. The excitement came when I found the second one, because that really then begins to look like this is a new population we’ve discovered and we’ve just got the tip of the iceberg.”
Inside a few weeks Jocelyn had discovered three more radio wave sources that were behaving in the same way. This proved beyond doubt that here was a new, real and probably entirely natural phenomenon, though there was some talk – only partly in jest – about the possibility that these pulsating radio waves were being sent across the Universe by an alien intelligence.
A paper in Nature, the renowned scientific journal followed and it was published on the 24th February 1968. The press interest was huge after the paper came out, and Jocelyn and other people in the lab did a series of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Somehow she managed to get back to finishing her PhD, which she did in September 1968. But her life had changed, and she had become an overnight scientific celebrity, still only in her mid twenties.
Jocelyn said that the practical importance of her new found fame was that she never found it difficult to pick up a job when she was travelling around Britain with her husband, Martin Bell. He was a civil servant that regularly moved from city to city. Jocelyn followed him and worked part time for many years raising their son Gavin, who was born in 1973, and is also a physicist.
The down-side of achieving fame and success at an early stage was – as Jocelyn said to this reporter – that people expected her to come up with amazing discoveries all the time. A discovery such as finding pulsars comes only about once per decade in the astronomical community as a whole, and so it is a bit hard, she suggested, to live up to such expectations.
These days she continues to work as a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University where she is free to conduct research without too many other duties being imposed on her. Whatever she might do before she retires, her scientific legacy is secure. In 2010, a pulsar conference was held in Sardinia to honour her 45 years in science and to ‘christen’ a new radio telescope. A long-time colleague Australian pulsar researcher, Dick Manchester, was asked to deliver a speech at the conference, detailing Jocelyn’s contribution to science.
“I think Jocelyn’s fame is greater because she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize in 1974 than it would have been if she had. I believe that the furore that her lack of recognition caused resulted in a change of attitude by the Nobel Committee and I’m sure more widely as well, with a heightened awareness of the role of students in projects and the role of women in science.”
First published in the July-August edition of Science Spin
How Irish Scientists Changed the World, by Seán Duke, is due for publication by Londubh Books in 2012.