Fifty years of pulsars with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

royal society of edinburgh logoYesterday afternoon I visited the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) – of which I am a Fellow – to attend its 2017 Annual Statutory Meeting. Immediately afterwards the RSE opened its doors to members of the public who had booked places to hear a Presidential Address delivered by RSE President Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Dame Jocelyn’s talk was entitled ‘Fifty years of pulsars’. Dame Jocelyn first related the stages of the discovery of pulsars 50 years ago in 1967 when she was a PhD student at Cambridge. Then she spoke about more recent developments in the field. The presentation ended with a number of interesting Guinness book of records type facts about pulsars. For example a thimble-full of pulsar weighs as much as the all the people on earth put together; pulsars are very accurate at time-keeping; the name pulsar was devised by Daily Telegraph science correspondent Anthony Michaelis. The scientific content of the talk was presented at just the right level for a mixed audience, and thus was both accessible and interesting. Indeed I had to check myself afterwards when I started to wonder why I hadn’t studied physics beyond O level myself!

Other fascinating aspects of the presentation related to attitudes towards female scientists at the start of Dame Jocelyn’s career. For example, during press interviews about the discovery of pulsars it was Dame Jocelyn’s supervisor Tony Hewish who was asked all about their astrophysical significance. In complete contrast she was there for ‘human interest’, asked to: give her bust, waist and hip sizes; determine whether she was brunette or blonde; enumerate the number of boyfriends that she saw at the same time; and even undo the buttons on her blouse for the newspaper photographers. It wasn’t just the press who failed to appreciate that a young woman might make a major astronomical discovery: at the time Dame Jocelyn’s friends were more interested in the announcement of her engagement (between the discovery of the second and third pulsars) than her scientific work.

Following the talk there was a Q&A session in the auditorium. I was especially pleased when someone asked the question that was on my mind as to the number of pulsars that have been discovered since Dame Jocelyn’s initial four. Dame Jocelyn continued to answer questions more informally during the drinks reception which ended the evening.

Tim Read and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discuss supernova explosions

Tim Read and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell at the reception discuss supernova explosions

After the talk I was pleased to catch up with some of the other Fellows, visitors to, and staff of, the RSE. I particularly enjoyed chatting to Professor Alistair Borthwick of the University of Edinburgh (with whom I sat during the ASM and presentation) and seeing Vicki Hammond, the RSE‘s Journals and Archive Officer.

This is the second time that I have heard Dame Jocelyn speak. The first was in October 2014 when she was Edinburgh Napier University’s Athena SWAN team’s guest of honour at a dinner to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2014. On the basis of both occasions, I hope that there will be further opportunity to hear from Dame Jocelyn at other events in the future.

It’s also crossed my mind that the story of Dame Jocelyn‘s discovery of pulsars would make a great play (or even movie). I wonder if anyone else has already thought of this?

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