July 15 – London Calling

Today’s factismal: The Nobel prize for pulsars didn’t go to their discoverer; instead, it went to her adviser.

Jocelyn Burnell (née Bell) was born 71 years ago. She showed an early interest in astronomy and math, and ended up going to the University of Cambridge to get her PhD. It was there that she made a discovery that would change our view of the universe and give her adviser a Nobel prize.

The most famous non-winner of a Nobel Prize (Image courtesy NASA)

The most famous non-winner of a Nobel Prize
(Image courtesy NASA)

Her work at Cambridge focused on the new field of radio astronomy. You see, astronomers study stars using light. But stars give out different types of light at wavelengths that we can’t see (like radio waves, gamma rays, and microwaves) and that means that we have to have special instruments to capture the light and turn it into data that we can see. And one of the most interesting of those types of light just happens to be radio waves. So, in 1967, the English decided to build a radio dish to watch the stars with (and to compete with those pesky Americans and their Aricebo dish). And Bell (as she was known then) was lucky enough to have an adviser who was working on the project.

Bell helped design and build the new antenna, and spent many a sleepless night poring over the signals it picked up from the stars. And her persistence paid off. In 1967, she discovered a regular signal. As a matter of fact, the signal was so regular that at first her adviser insisted that it was man-made and called it “LGM1” (Little Green Men 1) to make fun of it. But Bell kept working, eliminating alternate explanations for the signal until even her adviser was convinced – it was a new type of star that they called a pulsar.

The discovery of a new type of star astounded the astronomical community. It was so amazing that they awarded her adviser the Nobel prize in 1974 – just seven years after the discovery was made! (Normally, it takes decades after a discovery to win the prize.) So why wasn’t she given the prize?

In part, it was because she was “just a student” and many didn’t understand quite how important her role had been. (Though Fred Hoyle is said to have protested the decision so vigorously that it kept him from getting a Nobel prize a few years later.) And in part, it was because she was a woman. Though the first person to win two Nobel prizes had been a woman (Marie Curie) and though women had made great strides in science, there was still a lot of lingering sexism.

But Bell ignored the controversy and kept looking at the stars. Thanks to her hard work, she has since been awarded an honorary degree at 21 different universities, awards from the American Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, and been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to Astronomy and a Fellow of the Royal Society. And today she’s probably out somewhere, looking over reams of data and looking at the stars.

If you’d like to help astrophysicists like her, and maybe share in the glory when they discover something new, then why not join Einstein@Home? It is a program that allows you to donate unused computer time to physics research programs around the world.

3 thoughts on “July 15 – London Calling

  1. Pingback: August 15 – Wow! – Little facts about science

  2. Pingback: October 22 – The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket | Little facts about science

  3. Pingback: March 8 – A Woman’s Work | Little facts about science

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