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The stolen pulsar

February 24, 2014

jocelyn

Female astronomers are rare, let alone those who changed the way we see the universe. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is one of them. Honoured today by many astronomical societies, her journey did not have an easy start.

It all began the first week of Jocelyn’s secondary school, when the girls were send to the domestic science room and the boys to the lab. Only after parents made an uproar, the lab was made available also for the girls. But that was just a beginning. In early 60’s, when she went to university, her colleagues were so annoyed by the presence of a woman, they wolf whistled and stamped with feet every time she walked into the lecture theatre. Again, she surmounted, graduated from physics and moved to Cambridge to work on her PhD.

While working there with the first radio telescope, she spotted a weird signal. Being extremely meticulous and afraid of making a mistake, Jocelyn checked it again and again. Finally, she showed it to her supervisor Anthony Hewish, but he dismissed her. Jocelyn went back for more and returned with a string of equally spaced pulses. At time no one understood what it was, but today we know they were pulsars, dense cores of collapsed stars. Jocelyn was the first to recognise them. She was the one who spotted the first, the second, third and forth one. It was her curiosity about seemingly such a tiny detail that led to one of the most important discoveries in modern astronomy.

However, when the work was published in the Nature magazine, her supervisor Anthony and another colleague were credited for it. As a result they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974. The controversial decision made many astronomers renaming the Nobel Prize into NoBell Prize. The pulsar discovery has since been retrieved and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell comments the adversity, saying The world’s not fair and it’s how you cope with the world’s unfairnesses that counts.

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