Jiva Technology

The strange story of pulsars and Jocelyn Bell Burnell

For anyone with the slightest interest in science, pulsars are incredible objects. They’re dead stars with magnetic fields as much as 20,000,000,000,000 times that of Earth. They spin at speeds of up to 25o million km an hour. And they pulse light at regular intervals, providing these amazing objects with their name and providing astronomers with lighthouses to navigate their way around the universe.

But for all heir amazing attributes, the story of how pulsars were discovered is just as amazing as the the pulsars themselves. They were discovered on a hand built radio array at Cambridge University in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a quite remarkable scientist who never received the accolades she deserved because she was a woman and because she was a mere PhD student, not a supervisor. Others got Nobel prizes for her discovery, she did not. In the ensuing press interest surrounding the discovery, she received questions as to how many boyfriends she had.

Its an instructive episode for a number of reasons. First of all, it shows that great science does not always arrive in a planned fashion. Secondly, we’d do well to offer credit where credit’s due and thirdly, we can never return to a situation where women in science don’t receive the respect they deserve simply because they’re women. We’d all like to think that we’ve moved on from episodes like this, but its only by reminding ourselves of what happened in the recent past can we make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In the meantime, the discovery of pulsars is a great example of the surprises that science can still spring upon us and the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a great example of the proud history of women in science.



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