Earth and Space

Bell Burnell’s brilliance

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 IOP RESOURCES

In an after-dinner speech, Jocelyn Bell Burnell reported the research in 1967 that would lead to the discovery of the pulsar. She described the work to build the Interplanetary Scintillation Array on the outskirts of Cambridge. Eager students were recruited over the summer to sledgehammer over a thousand posts into a 4½ acre field. The posts were strung with 120 miles of wire to create a radio telescope.

She reported seeing a bit of ‘scruff’ on one of the recordings from the telescope and trying to make another observation of the same area of sky, but she couldn’t detect a signal and assumed that the source had vanished. However, she later found the signal again and discovered it consisted of equally spaced pulses at 1⅓ second intervals. Her supervisor, Tony Hewish, suggested that the signal must have an artificial source, but Bell Burnell believed that it might come from a star. She acknowledged that Hewish’s response was the more sensible and said her own belief was driven by a “truly remarkable depth of ignorance”.

Bell Burnell repeated the observation, having to breathe on the receiver system to get it to work properly in the cold Cambridgeshire winter. She was able to confirm the presence of the source which was temporarily labelled LGM-1 (Little Green Man 1). The signal was established to be a rapidly rotating neutron star emitting radiation: a pulsar.

Once the findings were announced, journalists descended on Cambridge but asked the young scientist questions which reflected attitudes to female researchers at the time, rather than showing a genuine interest in the discovery. Bell Burnell recalls being asked: “Was I taller than or not quite as tall as Princess Margaret… and how many boyfriends did I have at the time?” The photography also failed to reflect the significance of her work — Bell Burnell reports being asked to take up “several silly poses: standing on a bank, sitting on a bank, standing on a bank reading bogus records, sitting on a bank reading bogus records, running down a bank waving her arms in the air”.

When her supervisor and another scientist received the 1974 Nobel Prize for the discovery, Bell Burnell was not included in the award. She later commented stoically:

First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it - after all, I am in good company, am I not!


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