"I started by failing"
October 26, 2011 9:39 AM   Subscribe

We all get drowned in paperwork from time to time, but imagine your job required you to go through three miles of paper, identifying quasars and interference from radio signals, by hand? As a 24 year old grad student, Jocelyn Bell did just that. And what she found was called the "greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century."

BBC Radio has posted a 30-minute interview with Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. Her discovery, which was originally brushed off by her advisor (folks in grad school may relate to that) as an insignificant "bit of scruff," ended up being the remnants of a collapsed star, known as a pulsar.

The discovery awarded a Nobel Prize....to her advisor in 1974. Certain institutions highlight the fact that women in science haven't always been taken seriously.

She was also featured in this documentary, was elevated in 2007 to the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was the first ever female President of the Institute of Physics.
posted by glaucon (27 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool post. Look forward to finding our more about her.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:41 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Her advisor, Hewish, should thank his lucky stars that he had such a dedicated and determined grad student like Bell-Burnell. She deserved a piece of that Nobel Prize.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:45 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is that 3 miles lengthwise or by thickness?
posted by DU at 9:49 AM on October 26, 2011


Yeah... assuming that the interview is the same one I heard on Radio4 earlier this week, they asked her if she thought her boss getting the Nobel prize was a sign of sexism in system.

Her answer was (paraphrased) that it wasn't because it was accepted that you had a boss at the top with lots of people under him, and that if one of these underlings made a discovery, it was officially the chief's, not the underlings.

Kind of like Thomas Edison being the inventor of all the things his employees created.

This isn't to say that the system isn't sexist - just that the woman in question doesn't consider this to be an example of it.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 9:50 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's definitely elitism or something similar. But it could still ALSO be sexism if a man would've had less problems fighting the injustice or have had a different level of injustice.
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Her story is reminiscent of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who also worked with stars of variable brightness. Her work laid the groundwork for Hubble's discovery that the universe is expanding, another of the great scientific discoveries of the twentieth century that changed the way we see the universe.
posted by TedW at 9:56 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is a long-standing issue with the Nobels; the PI gets the credit for the work, while the intellectual (and otherwise) heavy-lifting is done by the bright grad student/postdoc. This work is generally unrecognized by the Nobel committee.

This works ok for PIs who are engaged with their work and who are active in the research, much less so for professors who act more as grant-seekers and project managers, and whose names appear on publications (as last author usually) mostly because they support the work, but don't directly contribute much.
posted by bonehead at 10:00 AM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


... Her discovery, which was originally brushed off by her advisor (folks in grad school may relate to that) ...

Hrmm, was she the inspiration for the 'Dr. Ellie Arroway' character in Contact?
posted by de void at 10:10 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's definitely elitism or something similar.

It's certainly prevalent. I am fairly sure that Chemistry faculty are convinced that not only have they read everything they have copied or printed out but everything their grad students have copied or printed out. Curiously, they never think the reverse is true....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:29 AM on October 26, 2011


One could do a whole post on graduate students who did the work but didn't exactly get the recognition. Geiger and Marsden go on the list, for example.

On the other hand, it makes me insanely happy that if you do an image search for Jocelyn Bell, you get almost no pictures of her standing next to an optic telescope, so that's where my standards have gotten to.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:37 AM on October 26, 2011


Robert L. Forward has IIRC said quite directly that she was the basis for the character of Jacqueline Carnot in Dragon's Egg.
posted by localroger at 10:43 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


What she discovered was also one of the least well understood but nevertheless best album covers of all time.
posted by atbash at 11:02 AM on October 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


"Her discovery, which was originally brushed off by her advisor (folks in grad school may relate to that) as an insignificant "bit of scruff,"

From the "The" link in in the third paragraph: "from In November 1967 Jocelyn began to take notice of unusual signals which she termed as "scruff"
posted by longsleeves at 11:12 AM on October 26, 2011


I think his use of the term 'insignificant' is what is significant here.
posted by glaucon at 11:15 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think his use of the term 'insignificant' is what is significant here. I like how he's keeping a pulse on the research.
posted by uni verse at 11:46 AM on October 26, 2011


I like how he's keeping a pulse on the research.

Bada-bing! Unfortunately, more professors should have either a lax enough environment that people can explore unexplained phenomena that catches their attention, or encourage their students to do so, rather than just work on the project specified by their corporate grant.
posted by glaucon at 12:26 PM on October 26, 2011


Unfortunately, more professors should have either a lax enough environment that people can explore unexplained phenomena that catches their attention, or encourage their students to do so, rather than just work on the project specified by their corporate grant.

I agree in general, but unless someone is working on detector/telescope technology end of the science, there's not a lot of "corporate grant" going on in astronomy (and in the tech end, it's probably more DoD looking at improving spy satellite tech). There's a lot of non-profit grants, but those are much more in the spirit of the science itself.

The real problem (and I mentioned this in another thread) is the pervasive granting of credit to advisors and "Principal Investigators" who farm out most or all of the work to underlings. I've worked with PIs who have well earned their credit (i.e. a definite majority, I have huge respect for PIs that I know), but I'm also well familiar with PIs in industry (and in academia) who let their grad students and postdocs bolster their reputation while the students or postdocs languish in both obscurity and forever-adjunct/forever-postdoc roles. That shit has to stop.
posted by chimaera at 12:49 PM on October 26, 2011


What she discovered was also one of the least well understood but nevertheless best album covers of all time.

In honor of this comment, the soundtrack for my run today was Unknown Pleasures.
posted by chimaera at 12:52 PM on October 26, 2011


Hrmm, was she the inspiration for the 'Dr. Ellie Arroway' character in Contact?

No, that was Jill Tarter.
posted by mothershock at 12:58 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


What she discovered was also one of the least well understood but nevertheless best album covers of all time.

In honor of this comment, the soundtrack for my run today was Unknown Pleasures.


Glad to help, any time.
posted by atbash at 1:14 PM on October 26, 2011


The discovery awarded a Nobel Prize....to her advisor in 1974.

I'm not really sure I get this spin from other sources, or even necessarily those you've linked to (I'll have to listen to the doc later).

Most sources indicate that once she identified this "scruff" as a repeatable and identifiable signature, Hewish supported a search for more of them, and various metrics to rule out alternative explanations. The Nobel was for the whole of the research, not for the thing noticed by a lab technician. Finally, of course, this was within the course of a research project started by Hewish himself. It wasn't like she was in her backyard scanning the skies randomly.

Bell has consistently been credited by Hewish for her role, including in his official Nobel autobiography.
posted by dhartung at 1:15 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting. I weed through scruff every day, not likely to find a pulsar, but I still find this kind of story inspiring.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:21 PM on October 26, 2011


Bell has consistently been credited by Hewish for her role, including in his official Nobel autobiography.

It's very fair to say that she needed to push to have her findings taken seriously. Yes, Hewish has credited her for her role in his autobiography, but that doesn't mean that he initially didn't dismiss her findings as immaterial. Or that she recognized it was important, kept at it and should have been recognized for continuing to explore what those scruffs were.

It's also fair game to point out that over 90% of Nobel Prizes have gone to men, and that the people under the recipients may have been unfairly left out in many cases for their contributions.
posted by glaucon at 1:35 PM on October 26, 2011


I do appreciate the pushback, though. I did not include Hewish's official autobiography or her past statements that put no blame on Hewish and even show gratitude for his support.

So, thanks, dhartung.
posted by glaucon at 1:40 PM on October 26, 2011


I think his use of the term 'insignificant' is what is significant here.

It's insignifigant anyway.
posted by longsleeves at 2:03 PM on October 26, 2011


Speaking of album covers: He's got a pulsar on his back!
posted by benito.strauss at 2:32 PM on October 26, 2011


Prof. Bell-Burnell was my housemate's supervisor when we were doing our PhDs and as a result I have met her socially, and she is thoroughly pleasant. Everyone in the dept liked her, which can often not be said for big name academics. She does get the credit for pulsar discovery in all the literature which I guess is something. The amazing thing is she doesn't seem to be bitter about not getting credit for the Nobel prize, apparently this is often put down to her strong Quaker faith. There was a filmed BBC documentary a year or two ago which tells the story of her discovery and the Nobel award, worth a look if you can lay hands on it.

I could have sworn I put up a bit of a biog for her on an AskMe thread but I can't find anything.
posted by biffa at 3:59 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Iconoclast, Fashion Symbol, Bookbinder, Legend   |   "The stakes here are huge." Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments