In the Birthday Honours List, the Queen has made Jocelyn Bell, the astrophysicist a Dame of the British Empire .... and therein lies a fascinating tale of good science, male chauvinism and academic intrigue.
Jocelyn Bell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 15, 1943 when she failed her 11 plus examination for admission to public grammar school, her architect father (he had been a finalist in a radio quiz show "Brain of Britain") sent her to Mount School, a Quaker girls' boarding school in York. She took an early interest in astronomy through the the staff of the Armagh Observatory, which was near her home Belfast, who encouraged her interest in astronomy. It was a comfortable background, "We had a nanny, a nurse always. For a long time there was a cook and a maid in the kitchen. There was a gardener and maybe a second gardener and there was a handyman-come-chauffeur if you want to be really grand. It was a great life."
After a B.Sc in physics from Glasgow University ( 1 female in 50 students) she went on to work on her Ph.D. at Cambridge University working under the direction of Antony Hewish.
Her first 2 years at Cambridge were spent assisting in the construction of an 81.5-megahertz radio telescope that was to be used to track quasars. This was her baby and she was fed with 120 metres of charts every 4 days - analysis showed some unusual and irregular signals. These signals appeared to be made by a radio source too fast and regular to be a quasar. Jocelyn Bell had detected the first evidence of a pulsar.
There is a popular story that when Joyce and her advisor Anthony Hewish were not sure what these signals meant they called them LGM for Little Green Men. (see PBS illustrated strip explanation for children here) They thought it could possibly be a beacon from an alien source.
Hewish shared the Nobel prize for Physics in 1974 with Sir Martin Ryle for "for their pioneering research in radio astrophysics: Ryle for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture synthesis technique, and Hewish for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars". The role of Joyce Bell was not so rewarded.
Publication of these strange new extra terrestrial radio signals followed in Nature in 1968 and astronomers wroldwide directed their attention to these new signals which were identified the signals as coming from rapidly rotating neutron stars. The term pulsar used to describe these is simply an abbreviation for pulsating radio star or rapidly pulsating radio sources.
The central part of a pulsar consists of a neutron star. The pulsars are also accompanied by magnetic fields many millions of times stronger than those found in laboratories on Earth. The neutron star is surrounded by an electrically-conducting gas or plasma. Each pulsar rotates and emits beams of radiation in the Universe, resembling those from a light-house. The beams strike the Earth periodically with high precision.
This came from a theory put forth by Robert Oppenheimer and Fritz Zwicky (who curiously lived next door to Lenin in Zurich) in the 1930s, predicting that when a massive star died, it would collapse into an incredibly dense, spinning body - a neutron star.
Jocelyn married and became Mrs Jocelyn Burnell and was elected Professor of Physics at the Open University for ten years (doubling the number of female UK Professors of Physics) , and then a visiting professor at Princeton University. Before retiring she was Dean of Science at the University of Bath between 2001 and 2004, and was President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004. She is currently a visiting professor at Mansfield College, Oxford University.
A television documentary which anticipated her honour , about Bell Burnell's life was broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on 13 June 2007 "Northern Star" , see review and commentary by producers Belfast Telegraph
"a woman who failed her 11-plus, but went on to become a professor of astrophysics and a leading scientist in her field. ......the story of her role as a post-graduate student in the groundbreaking discovery of pulsars and the subsequent Nobel Prize that some believe she should have been co-awarded."
The program interviewed the 80 year old Anthony Hewish .."You know, in the popular mind, she is the key person in the discovery of pulsars," he says. "I'm totally fed up with it ! this stupid business that Jocelyn did all the work and I got all the credit, I get fed up with that comment because its just blarney, I mean it's just totally wrong.
"If she's disgruntled about the Nobel, well that's too bad quite honestly. It's a bit like an analogy I make - who discovered America? Was it Columbus or was it the lookout? Her contribution was very useful, but it wasn't creative. And I don't think you do get the Nobel prize for that".
...and the Little Green Men ? This is what Jocelyn, a devout Quaker said in the program..
"The universe is very big - there's about 100,000 million galaxies in the universe so that means an awful lot of stars. And some of them, I'm pretty certain, will have planets, where there was life, is life or maybe will be life. I don't believe we're alone."
Jocelyn also received on 7th June this year (along with ex student Bill Gates whose Foundation donates US$1.5 BN a year) an Honorary Doctorate from Harvard University - where the citation recorded "The United Kingdom and the United States have awarded her the Oppenheimer prize, the Michelson medal, the Magellanic Premium, and the Herschel medal. Universities in both nations conferred honorary doctorates on her. She was elected a Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2005." (Pic ? 1997 Nissan Pulsar)
The image below is a negative representation of 100 successive pulses from the first pulsar discovered, PSR 1919+21 by Bell & Hewish (Nature 217:709-713, 1968) and was taken from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy- see right. It formed the cover design of Unknown Pleasures the first album by Joy Division, released in 1979. It was produced by that mad bastard Martin Hannett and recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, England.