Grace under pressure

The BBC is running an interview with Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, and it’s very good. Bell-Burnell is the woman who discovered pulsars, and until I heard this interview, I hadn’t realized how it was done.

Yeah, there weren’t computers available so the reams of data came out on strip chart – paper chart – and the configuration produced a hundred foot a day and I ran it for six months, which gave me about three miles of paper, which I had to analyse by hand. I would go through the charts and I would log where I saw what I thought were quasars and I also saw that there were chunks of manmade interference – artificial interference. But just occasionally, one time out of five or one time out of 10, when we looked at a particular bit of sky there was this additional signal that didn’t look exactly like a quasar, didn’t look exactly like low level interference, occupied about a quarter inch of the chart.

So…spotting periodic quarter inch blips scattered on 3 miles of paper. I don’t want to hear any of you students complaining about your daily grind any more!

Unfortunately, she was robbed: she discovered pulsars, it was her persistence that got her advisor to take the observations seriously, after initially dismissing the whole idea — and guess who won the Nobel in 1974 for the discovery? Her advisor, and not Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. She does not complain, however; those were the facts of life.

I think at that time science was perceived as being done by men, senior men, maybe with a whole fleet of minions under him who did his bidding and weren’t expected to think. I believe the Nobel Prize committee didn’t even know I existed.

And then the newspapers covered pulsars, and called her the “girl”…

Oh yes and worse than that what were my vital statistics and how tall was I and you know – chest, waist and hip measurements please and all that kind of thing. They did not know what to do with a young female scientist, you were a young female, you were page three, you weren’t a scientist.

Apparently, it was also the custom when she was a student in Glasgow for the men to stamp their feet and wolf-whistle whenever a woman walked into a lecture hall, and she of course was the only woman in the entire physics program at the time.

None of this could possibly have influenced the career decisions of an entire generation of women, I’m sure.

(Also on FtB)