Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Great Irish Women part 3a - Susan Jocelyn Bell

WHAT an amazing woman, did any of you catch the BBC 1 programme Northern Star? I was enthralled from beginning to end.

Jocelyn Bell is truly an inspiration, the programme showed her as a student, as a lecturer, as a scientist and an amazing woman.

"I hope younger women have an easier ride than I've had, I've had to fight quite hard most of my working life."

If I thought she was something special beforehand I think it even more now, wow. And where do I begin here.

So many things strike me about the programme and it's insight into Jocelyn Bell. One is her own non-belief in herself for so many years because she didn't get the qualifying as it was known, or the 11+. Speaking to students in her old school she said: "Failing an exam is not fatal."

And probably because she was brought up in the Quaker faith where girls where encouraged to be educated unlike many around her she continued her studies.

She also spoke of how hard her life as a scientist and a woman was. Despite discovering pulsars she explained of how when she became engaged she was taken less seriously. Because it was somehow obvious to the men she worked with that she would no longer want a career as a scientist when she became a wife. This wasn't obvious for Jocelyn and it must have been so frustrating for her at that time.

Her authorship on the pulsar discovery and the subsequent Nobel Prize was only really stamped after another leading scientist, Fred Hoyle, wrote a letter to the Times stating that the award should have gone to her also instead of just to her Professor. This instigated a media burst for Jocelyn Bell and the beginnings of people's recognition of her massive discovery.

Course her Professor Anthony Hewish who was awarded the Nobel Prize disagreed but he would in fairness. It was funny watching their different accounts of particular incidents. Such as one where Susan explained how she approached him with her first findings. The instruments were recalibrated and after a particular period of time nothing happened and he threw a wobbly. His account tells of how he just teased her about it.

But then the readings came again. And of course during her trawling through three miles of paper she studied the pulsars more.

During her research to pinpoint what was going on she told of how she drove out to the laboratory in freezing cold weather on her moped, the equipment wasn't working so she cursed and kicked it and got five minutes out of it. Somehow luck was on her side, well not to mention her hard work, she got the pulses, or scrum again.

When I researched Susan before I read her comments on the Nobel Prize where she was outrageously gracious about not being included and I did find it strange. But it is clear that isn't how she feels now if she ever really felt that way about it and that now she does feel robbed.

Her former Professor, the Nobel awardee obviously doesn't feel this way and almost dismissed her as having found some kind of feminism. I would have thought that a Professor could have come up with something better than that.

The programme brought the two together at the end and that was soo telling to. At one stage Susan said to him 'you opened a big door' and he replied saying something like it was a big part of his career. And then silence, that uncomfortable silence. I think that says so much about her.

Susan now spends a lot of time in Donegal as well as everywhere else she is as a scientist. She said of Donegal: "I am confused as to what I am, there is something in the coast and mountains that appeals to me."

There is no confusion to me, Susan Jocelyn Bell, is a role model and an inspiration.

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