Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Great Irish Women part 3 - Susan Jocelyn Bell

Look happy dear, you've just made a Discovery

The next installment of Great Irish Women features Susan Jocelyn Bell, who was born in Belfast in July 1943 and was the first person to discover pulsars.

Susan Jocelyn Bell among the antennae

Her interest in astronomy was massively influenced by her father and his library of books on the subject. He was an architect who designed Armagh Observatory. Despite failing the Northern Irish equivalent of the 11+ she continued her studies in a Quaker Boarding School in England where she discovered a love for physics.

She later attended university in Glasgow and then Cambridge where she made her groundbreaking pulsar discovery.

In 1967 while at Cambridge under Anthony Hewish she assisted in constructing a radio telescope to track quazars. Her role was to operate the telescope and analyse the charts produced by the telescope. During this analysis she noted unusual data or scruffs on the chart recorder data.


She ruled out interference from the ground and the signals were initially called LGM or little green men. It was later identified as a rapidly rotating neutron star and named them pulsars, for PULsating radio stARS.

This discovery led to a 1974 Nobel prize in the newly introduced Astronomy prize for her supervisor Anthony Hewish and a controversy over her exclusion in the prize.

According to Ken Howard who writes in Physics for all mind-sets where she points out that science is seen as more collaborative, and shared Nobel prizes are more common.

During an after dinner speech in 1977 she spoke of not being included in the prize:

“It has been suggested that I should have had a part in the Nobel Prize awarded to Tony Hewish for the discovery of pulsars. There are several comments that I would like to make on this:

“First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.

“Finally, I am not myself upset about it --after all, I am in good company, am I not!”

Despite not getting the recognition she deserves (in my non-scientific opinion) by the Nobel Prize she has totted up more than enough prestigious awards such as the J.R. Oppenheimer Prize, the Michelson Medal from the Franklin Institute, the Tinsley Prize from the American Astronomical Society for "especially innovative research" and the Royal Astronomical Society's Herschel Medal.

Speaking to Starchild website, Nasa, on the question of whether astronomy is more inviting for women today in comparison to 30 years ago she said:

“Yes, I believe it is and I believe it's getting better all the time. We are becoming more conscious of the differences between men and women, the different ways they work, and the contribution of women is becoming more and more recognized. It's still got a bit to go, but it's coming along very nicely.”

Now retired Susan has held senior posts with the Open University, the University of Bath, the Royal Astronomical Society, Oxford University and Princeton University.

Talking to students

“I was 24 when we discovered pulsars. It made a very dramatic end to my doctoral studies. I get cross when people say 'What are you going to discover next?' Very few people make that kind of discovery."


Sources: Here, here, here, here and here.

Technorati tags:


Omaniblog said...

Greetings red mum. Have a lovely 2007. I look forward to reading and enjoying your blog - all year.

John of Dublin said...


Red Mum said...

Thanks Omaniblog, I'll try my best!

John: stop by again for the next installment. I am learning so much by doing these.