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Ep. 360: Modern Women: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an Irish astronomer, best known for being part of the team that discovered pulsars, and the following controversy when she was excluded from the Nobel Prize winning team.

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This episode is sponsored by:  Swinburne Astronomy Online, 8th Light

Show Notes

  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell bio
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell covered by the BBC
  • “Little Green Men, White Dwarfs, or Pulsars?” written by Jocelyn Bell Burnell
  • What is a Pulsar? — Universe Today
  • Ep. 158: Pulsars
  • Ep. 356: Rotational Inertia
  • Top Ten Nobel Snubs — Scientific American
  • Transcript

    Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

    Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast; Episode 360. Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly fact-based journey through the Cosmos. We’ll help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. And with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. And the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pamela, how you doing?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?

    Fraser Cain: Good. Good. I’m feeling a little sniffly today so I reserve the right to sneeze once or twice during the recording but I know Preston will remove that so it’ll never happen. You’ve got a bit of an announcement about some things that people can wear.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I do. So we’ve had a lot of people saying hey, we know Astronomy Cast t-shirts exist, can we get some? And the answer is yes. If you go over to Astrogear.spreadshirt.com we have mugs, we have t-shirts and you can customize them. We have boy cut and girl cut. You can pick out the colors you’d like them to be in. Proceeds from buying these shirts goes to support keeping all of our programs running. Basically you’re paying for the servers if you buy mugs and t-shirts and sweatshirts. So please buy mugs and t-shirts and sweatshirts at Astrogear.spreadshirt.com.

    Fraser Cain: They make wonderful Festivus gifts.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And Newtonmas.

    Fraser Cain: Newtonmas?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Right, so Newton was born on Christmas day.

    Fraser Cain: Oh, that’s right. Oh, that’s great. I’m totally celebrating Newtonmas.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So we acknowledge all of the birthdays here.

    Fraser Cain: That’s awesome. All right. So Pamela, we’ve got something special this week. We’ve got a new sponsor for Astronomy Cast and that is Casper.com. And they make mattresses. The cool thing with this is they sent us both individually mattresses to test out. Did you get yours?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I did. And it was this crazy situation where I kind of forgot to tell my husband there was a mattress coming and he opens the front door and there’s a box that is just big enough for a human to fit in, which is actually really tiny when you think about mattresses.

    Fraser Cain: Well, you got like the twin size one or the smaller one, right?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.

    Fraser Cain: Yeah, so I got the king size one and what’s amazing is I don’t think the box for the kind size one was any bigger than the one you had and there was like – I don’t know what laws of physics they broke to get this mattress in there but it was folded and rolled so they gave you this special knife to cut the thing open and then it just sort of inflated. You had a full-on king size mattress and it was super comfortable. We have actually gotten rid of the old mattress and we’re using the Casper mattress. It’s a terrific mattress so we now having tested it out, I’m really glad we’ve got them as a sponsor for Astronomy Cast.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I have to say the same thing. I got an extra large twin one to put on the daybed where I do a lot of reading and fussing around on my iPad and all that stuff. Initially, I just kind of put it on top of the old mattress and that lasted for about two days and then the old mattress kind of got ditched and it’s awesome. It’s squishy but firmish and it doesn’t have the problems that our Tempur-Pedic mattress has of making you super hot.

    Fraser Cain: Right, exactly. You’re not up against this kind of foam that gets you really hot. It’s great. So the good folks at Casper, in addition to sponsoring Astronomy Cast, are providing you with a discount on your own mattress. So if you go to Casper.com/astro and then if you use the promo code Astro, you can get $50 off your own mattress and they will ship it to you, I think anywhere in the United States.

    So Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an Irish astronomer best known for being part of the team that discovered pulsars and I love this story, and the following controversy when she was excluded from the Nobel Prize-winning team. This is a theme. Huh?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, themes sometime happen. Our original theme was awesome modern astronomers and I went down the list of awesome women who are still alive who forced textbooks to get rewritten or led to the things that we all learned the names of and it just happened that a lot of these women did things that had they been a guy, probably would’ve gotten them a Nobel Prize but not a guy.

    Fraser Cain: Nobel Prize, please. Okay. So let’s start with – I think we’ve sort of done this before but let’s start with the big discovery that Jocelyn Bell really helped with and then we’ll kind of go back around and actually talk about her history and what she’s been working on. And that was Pulsars.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. So she was a graduate student in the 1960s and while a student at Cambridge, she worked on building a large radio facility to look at the sky in literally a different color, in this case, radio light instead of optical light, and when she started getting her data, there was this – what in a very British way they refer to as scruff in the signal.

    Fraser Cain: Isn’t that when they were looking for birdpoop back in the Cosmic micro –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: No, no, that was the Cosmic –

    Fraser Cain: Yeah, no, I understand but it’s the same thing. I think the Brits would’ve called that scruff.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Probably. Probably. So in her data of this one particular place in the sky, and that’s always a hint, is it’s that one place in the sky, there was this bit of scruff and she would take all the data she could on this object and it just seemed to be ticking like a clock once a second. She basically had to chase down her advisor and say look, no, really, this is real. And he didn’t want to believe her originally. And then when he did believe her, they of course published the results. And then he would do big conferences and she’d end up having to speak but he wasn’t the one inviting her.

    It just kind of went on like that for a good long time. It was this awesome discovery that at the end of the day, they had to figure out what could possibly be making a ticking noise, or in this case, a ticking light signal that got translated into noise once a second, and the only answer that made sense –

    Fraser Cain: Aliens.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: – given – well, they did call it the little green men at some point.

    Fraser Cain: I know.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: But aliens aside, neutron stars are one of the few objects out there capable of holding themselves together while rotating that rapidly, and through a variety of different types of observations, it was narrowed down to by golly, this is a neutron star rotating and eventually it was figured out that it has a magnetic field that isn’t aligned with the rotation access of the stars. Sort of like the earths’ magnetic field isn’t aligned with the rotation access of the planet. And as that magnetic pole goes through our field of view, we get this burst of radius signal.

    She’s the one that found this, discovered this, forced someone to look at the results and go here is this awesomeness. It’s not scruff in the data.

    Fraser Cain: There’s something out there pulsing every – and I’ve got the number here, you ready for this?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.

    Fraser Cain: 1.3373020088331 seconds. In other words, every 1.33 blah blah seconds, we get a radar pulse like a lighthouse flashing us which must have been terrifying to – or amazing, astonishing to see an object with that kind of regularity out there in the Cosmos.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Luckily we see the signal and then figure out what it is. So I think we saw a star rotating at a thousand times a second at a distance that wasn’t very far away, it might start as terrifying but luckily, we’re like what is this? And then only after a while do we realize that some object is really far away and when it’s really far away, it takes you a while to figure out it’s just awesome. You skip straight to the awesome, bypass the terrifying.

    Fraser Cain: Yeah, but this is a slow-spinning LGM 1 or PSRJ1921 plus 2153 is only turns a little over once a second while there are millisecond pulsars out there.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Right, so there are objects that are greater in mass than the sun, smaller in diameter than – like Manhattan basically. That are rotating a thousand times a second.

    Fraser Cain: Right, and blasting out radio waves.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Right, as one does. As one does.

    Fraser Cain: As one does. Yeah. So I guess once they had discovered this object, what was sort of the thought process? What did they think was going on, apart from it being scruff, how did they make that connection between it being a neutron star and what they were seeing in the data?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, you do look at things in multiple wave lengths and start to figure out okay, so what could be causing this, what is in that area, are there more of them, more of them were found and you just put the pieces together one by one and realize there’s only one thing this could be. And really if you think about any other object rotating that quickly, it would fling its surface off if it tried.

    So you can’t get White Dwarf going that fast, you certainly couldn’t get the sun going that fast. You need something that is very tightly bound together and a black hole can’t exactly give off light every thousand of a second because black hole. So when you eliminate White Dwarf and recognize that black holes don’t emit light, that leaves you just with the neutron star.

    Fraser Cain: And what is the process? We’ve done a whole show on pulsars and neutron stars so I don’t want to give the long version of this but what gets you that rapidly rotating thing that’s blasting out the radiation on a regular basis?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So as talked about a few episodes back, there’s this horrific thing called conservation of angular momentum. The side effect of this is that when ice skaters or stars, physics doesn’t care which you are, when they go from having their mass spread out over a large volume, the ice skater with her arms straight out to having their mass spread out over smaller volume, this is the ice skater bringing her arms in, you’re gonna speed up.

    When you go from being a giant star to this residential bit, probably at the end of a supernova explosion, what’s left of you has to take whatever angular momentum that giant star had as it slowly rotated its giant self about its access. And when you go from perhaps being the size of Jupiter’s orbit or larger, down to Manhattan, you spin up a lot and it’s just that conservation of angular momentum coupled with supernova explosion.

    Fraser Cain: So the conversation of a bigger momentum gets you the rotating speed, and the beam, it’s not that it’s actually pulsing and flashing like this, it’s that there is a beam coming out of these things.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Right, that’s the magnetic field. Its physics is very similar to how we get the beams coming out of the ends of quasars. You have magnetic fields that just like to shoot things out of their pulse in terms of you have rotation about an access, in this case, the dynamo for whatever reason isn’t completely aligned with the rotation access. That leads to a north and South Pole that repeals charged particles. As these particles move, they undergo all sorts of different physics that lead to changes in energy levels, that leads to release of radio waves.

    Fraser Cain: All right. Let’s go back to Jocelyn Bell then. So that was her discovery. Let’s kind of go back and continue on her story. So she discovered this amazing thing. The neutron stars had been theorized but people hadn’t seen the –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, we hadn’t seen pulsars yet.

    Fraser Cain: We haven’t seen the pulsars yet. Okay. And how was this received?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So neutron stars exist in binary systems. We knew they existed. It was just this idea of rotating with a misaligned magnetic field. That was entirely new. That is something that we still are like okay, that’s kind of huh. And so that was back in 1967 that they made these observations, worked on figuring things out, worked on figuring things out.

    She went on finished her degree up. Went on to work at the University of South Hampton from 1968 to ’73. Went to the University College London. Was there ’74 to ’82. At that point, she went to Royal Observatory in Edinburg from ’82 to ’91. And then eventually she landed at the Open University from ’91 to 2001. And she was an amazing educator. She was someone who spent a lot of time in the classroom, spent a lot of time with students; she worked in projects at Greenwich Royal Observatory and their planetarium, serving on their board.

    She worked as a tutor, a consultant. All sorts of different tasks. Eventually once she pretty much retired from active teaching, she went on to be a visiting professor at the University of Oxford where she was again focusing on mentoring and continuing research. What was interesting is all of this was kind of flavored with the yes, I did this awesome thing when I was young, I was a student.

    Yes, my advisor got the Nobel Prize for it and I did not, but I was the student and if you’re gonna yell at faculty members when they try and blame their student for their failures, you should probably actually give them the prize when their students do something awesome. And that was just a very interesting way of saying look, just chill, in a very politically correct way that really I think has caused a lot of people to respect her across decades. It also led to her eventually becoming one of only two women in the UK to be senior professors. So she had that tenure dream that so many of us wish for and she managed to be one of the two women in the entire modern Western Nation that succeeded.

    Fraser Cain: That’s an interesting response to this because she really was snubbed. It was the ’74 Nobel Prize in physics. A lot of fairly influential astronomers were pretty outraged that she wasn’t part of the winning team. I never understood that because they can – whatever the team that wins the Nobel Prize, they can kind of share it among a bunch of people.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Three people.

    Fraser Cain: Up to three? Okay.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And Fred Hoyle was actually so incensed and raised such a stink that it’s considered that the stink that he raised about her not getting it, led to him not getting it in ’84. So you had people that were throwing such a stink, that they put their own careers in political jeopardy, and that doesn’t happen very often.

    Fraser Cain: Right, and the gist of her response was I was a grad student, part of a team, the team was created by – was it Hamish and we made this discovery, but if you’re gonna blame him when everything goes sideways, you should also reward him when everything goes well for being the team leader which is a pretty classy way to sort of respond to being snubbed and not getting a Nobel Prize.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I think that also reflects a lot on her upbringing, a lot on her personality. She is someone who has always been deeply involved in the Quaker Church. She was raised in Northern Ireland where she attended a boarding school.

    Actually, she had a really interesting childhood because she was attending the local they say college but it’s actually the local girls school, Lurgan College, and when she was about 11 years old, she took her exams to figure out what was the rest of her fate for her education and failed. And normally that means you go on to study for a trade. It means that you don’t go on to college.

    This school that she’d been going up until that point wasn’t even one that normally taught sciences. They instead put emphasis on things like cooking and womanly skills, learning to sew. And a bunch of parents did throw a fit. They did get science into the curriculum but she still failed her national exams. And her family went on to send her to a private girls Quaker boarding school.

    So she went onto Mount School in York and it was there that she finally started to do well in science. And it wasn’t that she hadn’t grown up surrounded by science; her dad was the architect of the Armagh Planetarium, and she’d been reading his science books but you need the passion and you need the education when it comes to exams and her parents made sure that she got all the opportunities that she deserved.

    Fraser Cain: It was a very sort of high-level specialization at a very early age going right into physics and progressing along that when she had kind of failed the more general tasks. It’s pretty interesting.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And it really speaks to how different education is in other nations. Here she was at 11 telling her no, sweetie, you need to just go study trade. You’re not smart enough to do this professional work.

    Fraser Cain: Maybe a hairdresser.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. Exactly. And her family was like nope. Sending your child away is a difficult task in a lot of cases and they recognized it was what was needed.

    Fraser Cain: So we’ve talked a bit about her initial discovery. What were some other kinds of research that she was involved in?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I spent quite some time trying very hard to find how many papers that she’s done, like we did last week with Margaret Geller and I ran into this rather horrifying problem that there are a lot of J. Burnells, there are a lot of J. Bells because she’s published under both names so trying to chase her research across all the decades has been somewhat challenging you might say.

    She has continued to work on pulsars throughout her life, looking at them in the optical, looking at them in the radio, looking for the awesome ones, looking for the weird ones, but chasing down any other research she might have done left me kind of confused in ADS because initials and last names that overlap make things difficult at times.

    Fraser Cain: So you don’t have any more additional information than this one.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: So the best I can say is she’s someone who continued to do a lot of work in pulsar’s and she’s someone that is modest to the point that I couldn’t find a website bragging about all the other stuff that’s she’s done over the years. That pleased me and made preparing difficult. So here you have this woman who is now in her 70s who is mostly retired. She stepped away from a lot of her board positions. She’s still plugging away at Oxford.

    I got to see her give a talk on pulsar’s there. If you look up her initials and her last name in pulsar’s, you get a ton of papers but there’s no website that she’s written that says and I did this and I did this and here’s my CV and you can see all of the awards I’ve gotten. A lot of people have that and she didn’t feel the need to have that anywhere. That’s kind of cool.

    Fraser Cain: Someone should help her with her social media profile.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: It sort of falls into the category of grandma needing a social media profile. In this case, she’s one of those senior scientists who’s probably produced multiple generations of academic children at this point and I think she’s done good.

    Fraser Cain: Now, had you met her? Have you seen her speak?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. I’ve seen her speak and I actually got to sit down and have a conversations with her. She’s the type of person – she’s gonna be blunt. She’s gonna – if you say something stupid, she’s gonna point it out to you in a very British way but she’s also gonna listen to the junior scientists in the room and she’s gonna look for ways to open doors and help them out. That dichotomy of not tolerating the fool while at the same time, looking to raise up the people who need opportunities is an awesome thing.

    There’s too many people out there that will just let you say stupid things and at the same time, don’t work to help other people out and she’s not that person. She’s just forthright and does a good job and was very tolerant of my students who being mid westerners, Oxford is as far away from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, as you can get. She sort of smiled and was British through all of the odd things that came out of their mouths occasionally.

    Fraser Cain: I’m sure I would’ve been hilarious to talk to her. I know you have a bunch of friends at Oxford, right? What’s the sort of astrophysics program like there?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s one of the big ones out there. It’s a large department in terms of being physics and astronomy combined. One of my dissertation committee members came from there. I worked with people while I was there on the Texas Oxford Surveys as a graduate student. It’s the type of department like Harvard or Arizona where if you’re an astronomer, you can’t go through your career without at some point working with people from these places. They do a lot of work and they produce a lot of humans and it’s just a big astronomy center.

    Fraser Cain: Yeah, we’re endlessly reporting on it with Universe Today on the research that they’re doing. Cool. Well, thanks a lot, Pamela.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: My pleasure.

    Recorder: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us at Astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or Circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on Google Plus every Monday at 12:00 p.m. Pacific, 3:00 p.m. Eastern or 2,000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at CosmoQuest.org.

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