Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the LGM-1

Jocelyn Bell and the LGM-1
Jocelyn Bell and the LGM-1, linocut portrait by Ele Willoughby 2014

Happy birthday to astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burrell (born, 1943), who discovered pulsars! As I wrote previously:

In November, 1967, Jocelyn Bell (Burnell) was just a graduate student when she discovered the first radio pulsar (or pulsating star), a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation (light in the radio frequency band) can only be observed when the star is point towards us; so, like the light from a distant lighthouse, it appears to pulse at a precise frequency. She had been working with her supervisor Antony Hewish and others to construct a radio telescope to study quasars (quasi-stellar objects which emit radio waves). She noted some "scruff" on her chart-recorder, and then that the pulses were incredibly regular, occurring every 1.337 seconds. Hewish was initially scornful and insisted the regular pulses must be noise from a human made source. He first dubbed this object, emitting with such regularity 'LGM 1' for "Little Green Men 1", a playful joke about their uncertainty about what could emit radiation so regularly - obviously it could only be a communication from extraterrestrials hahaha! Only after she found other such sources, in different places with different frequencies, were her colleagues convinced and this lead to the development of the pulsar model. It is now known PSR B1919+21.

The 1968 paper announcing this discovery in Nature has five authors, lead by Hewish, followed by Jocelyn Bell. In 1974, Hewish won the Nobel Prize for this discovery, along with fellow radioastronomer Marlin Ryle). Jocelyn Bell was not included as it was assumed that the "senior man" was responsible for the work. This was controversial and has been condemned by many leading astronomers like Fred Hoyle (who with Thomas Gold was first able to explain the signals as due to a rapidly rotating neutron star). Jocelyn Bell Burnell herself has stated she was not upset. Bell Burnell has a great on-going career and won many honours after her impressive start, but her exclusion from the Nobel win, based on her own research strikes me and many others as one of the more blatant and egregious examples of gender bias in the selection of Nobel prize recipients.

Read the full post about how her beautiful dataset itself has lead a life of its own as a cultural meme.

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