Monday, 15 July 2013

A woman's achievement, a man's prize

It’s a long way from a school where little girls are expected to study sewing and cookery, to a position as a leading woman scientist; it’s a long way from failing the 11+ examination, that terrible barrier that stood in the way of so many gaining access to adequate school education, to a PhD from one of the most prestigious world universities; and it’s a long way from doctoral studies to a discovery transforming our understanding of astronomy and confirming one of the key points of a theory as important as General Relativity.

The way must feel all the longer if the Nobel prize for that discovery is then awarded to others.

So spare a thought for Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Back in the sixties, having risen through an educational system which did little to open doors for her to pursue a scientific career, she was a doctoral student at Cambridge, building a four-acre array of frames and wires that formed a radio telescope. She was studying quasars, quasi-stellar radio sources, the compact cores of remote and massive galaxies. And then she came across something else, something strange and inexplicable.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell in front of her radio telescope.
As she told the BBC in 2001, ‘there was this curious, curious signal, pulsing ever-so rapidly, ever-so regularly. I though I’d connected the telescope up wrong, I’d got some wires crossed or something.’

But she hadn't. It took a lot of hard work to prove, but a month later she was able to confirm that she was on to something.

‘It was actually something out there... we nicknamed it Little Green Men, LGM, because it looked artificial, man-made, and yet it was out there with the stars.’

That was exciting enough, but there was better to come. 

‘The sweetest moment was finding the second one, very similar but not identical and in a different part of the sky, that really says it has to be something astronomical. [...] I came out here on my scooter at 3:00, 2:00 in the morning. It was perishing cold and unfortunately [...] when it was cold the telescope and the receiver seemed only to work at about half power and you had no chance of discovering anything. But I flicked switches, I breathed on the receivers, I swore at it, and I got it to work, I got it to work for five minutes and on the right setting and in on the chart came peep-peep-peep-peep-peep... very like the first one but sufficiently different. It really looked as if we’d got another type of star and we were just looking at the tip of the iceberg. It was fantastic.’

Bell's first recording of the radio signal from a pulsar
It’s excellent news for us to discover that even leading scientists use the same techniques as everyone else, swearing at bits of equipment until they work. And it was excellent news for her that she was on to something entirely new.

What she’d found was a type of stellar object later nicknamed pulsars (from pulsating radio stars) by a Daily Telegraph journalist. The name has stuck. Behind their hallmark regular pulse is a neutron star, the residue of the massive explosion we call a supernova. They are small (in astronomical terms - they can be as little as 20 km across) but colossally massive bodies rich in neutrons, which are major transmitters of radio waves.

This is a remarkable discovery in itself, but it had another even more significant impact: study of pulsars orbiting round another star has shown that this kind of ‘binary system’ transmits gravitational waves and generally behaves in the same way as Einstein’s theories of gravitation would predict – to within 0.02%. Science doesn’t do absolute certainty, so that’s remarkable accuracy.

The finding is a spectacular vindication of relativity, one of the pinnacles of human scientific achievement. It was made possible by Jocelyn Bell’s discovery. It is clearly significant enough to warrant the awarding of a Nobel Prize.

And the Nobel Prize was duly awarded. In 1974. To Anthony Hewish, Bell’s PhD supervisor and another radio astronomer, Martin Ryle. Both men.

What did Bell say about being denied her share? In an after-dinner speech to the New York Academy of Sciences in 1977, she explained:

‘Demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve.’

She argued that ‘it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project’ and also that, in her view, ‘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.’

Extremely generous comments and a tribute to a fine scientist. But the most telling and important comment was her last:

‘I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not?’

Indeed she is. Take Rosalind Franklin, for instance, another woman whose work on the structure of DNA made a key contribution to a radical breakthrough in science, a contribution not recognised by the Nobel Prize committee.

These things happen, of course. Not everyone’s contribution is always rewarded. It would be nice, though, if it happened a little less often to women.

In the meantime, raise a glass, or a prayer of thanks if that’s your bent, in honour of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, of Lurgan, Northern Ireland, whose 70th birthday falls today, 15 July. And whose contribution to our understanding of the universe far exceeded the recognition she ever won for it.


Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

Thanks, David, for giving credit where credit is due.

David Beeson said...

And it's certainly due to her, isn't it?

Awoogamuffin said...

Another issue with the nobel prizes is that as science gets bigger and more complicated, huge discoveries are being made by teams of dozens, if not hundreds of scientists, and some people are saying that the limitation of three per prize should be lifted.

That said, it would be a pity if more women were to be honoured just as the prize started getting "diluted"

David Beeson said...

Quite right. Science, particularly physics, is increasingly a large-team endeavour. But you're also right that there'd be some irony in seeing women being recognised more often, but only for a smaller share of the prize.