An Evening With the Lady Who Discovered Pulsars

This is a different sort of observing report than what I usually post…

This evening at the college where I work, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave a free lecture about how she discovered pulsars in the 1960s. It was a great talk about how she was doing her PhD thesis and had to build her own radio telescope to look for quasars, and discovered something else that was just as fascinating.

Without going into the lecture in great detail, here are some of the highlights (for me):

* She had to contend with a lot of bias against women. Case in point: even though it was her data and her telescope and her discovery, her thesis mentor ended up getting a Nobel Peace Prize and she got barely a mention.

* Upon receiving their Master’s Degree in astrophysics, graduates were given toolkits to help them in their later career, including wire cutters and a screwdriver.

* Radio astronomy was only about 20 years old and far from mainstream, and in order to complete her thesis on quasars, she had to go out and build her own radio telescope. It was about 57 tennis courts in size, and took her 2 of her 3 years in the doctorate program just to get it completed. She only had about 6 months of data collected before she graduated.

* She had no access to computers, and the telescope plotted signals with an ink pen on rolls of graph paper that had to be changed out every 20 minutes. It completed one pass of the sky every 4 days, and each pass took up 121 meters of paper. She sorted each roll of paper by its declination and pored over every centimeter of it.

* Whenever she saw something strange, she had to pore over plots of the identical parts of the sky to see if it was also present 4 days before.

* Several other people *almost* discovered pulsars first, but didn’t recognize what they were seeing and/or dismissed it as some manmade phenomenon.

* Since her thesis was almost due when the discovery was made, her mentor told her it was too late to change topics and she had to continue writing a paper about quasars, but cheated a bit and put a footnote about her discovery in the paper.
Dame Jocelyn was a great speaker and talked about hard science in an easy-to-understand way, and the talk was also sprinkled with a lot of humor. A great evening that ended much too early.

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