Beautiful Minds – Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The Vela Pulsar

On Wednesday this week I watched the first of a series of 3 programmes profiling British Scientists. It told the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who, as a postgraduate student, discovered pulsars – highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars that emit pulses of radiation at regular intervals.

Jocelyn Bell comes across as a genuine, self efacing, modest person. She speaks quietly with a distinct brogue revealing her Northen Irish origin (interestingly, her sister, who was interviewed during the programme, didn’t have a trace of a Ulster accent!). The programme included segments of an interview with her, where she expressed views on the practice of science but mainly concentrated on the story of her discovery of pulsars. As a PhD student in Cambridge, working under Antony Hewish, she was given the task of building a radio telescope (not the dish type but a field full of wires) and analysing the data obtained. Being in the 1950’s this data was in the form of chart recorder data – yards and yards of paper.During this analysis she noticed a series of small “blips”. Initially dismissed as “noise” by her superiors she carried on obtaining better data by slowing down the pen recorder! This allowed her to analyse these “blips” in more detail and it was then quite clear that she had found a series of regular pulses,  This led to quite a furore as initially it was thought these could be signals from ET. However, she went on to analyse other parts of the sky where she found similar signals, ruling out the ET theory.

Despite this marvellous work, it was her supervisor, Antony Hewish, who was awarded the Nobel prize. JBB didn’t get a mention. Hewish was interviewed during the programme and justified this by almost dismissing JBB’s role and arguing that it is a team effort and that the team leader is the person who deserves any credit. I think this was absolutely disgraceful and is indicative of the attitude of the scientific establishment. The “top men” taking all the credit and glory and also the embedded misogyny. Despite this, when discussing it during the programme (and I’ve seen other interviews with her where she takes the same attitude), she does not come across as bitter. I don’t know whether she feels any anger inside – if so, she does a good job of hiding it. I suspect this is partly explained by her religion – she is a Quaker and a gentle, stoic attitude and lack of bitterness seems to go allong with that.

Although I enjoyed the programme the content was inevitably limited it mainly concentrated on the pulsar story, only touching on other aspects of her life and career. I would have liked to have known more about how she squares her deep religious conviction with being a scientist and to have learnt more about her career after the 1950’s.  In other programmes I’ve seen about her life she has mentioned how difficult it was to work in science as a mother with young children and how she was able to keep in touch by working as a tutor for the Open University.

More information on JBB can be found on the Internet including some interviews with her that delve into some more detail, here.

Picture credit: NASA via Wikipdedia http://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/objects/heapow/archive/compact_objects/vela_pulsar_jet.html