Calgary

'Go for it': Female scientist famous for discovering pulsars encourages girls to pursue science

In 1967, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell was a post-grad student at Cambridge when she noticed 'a bit of scruff' in the sky through a radio telescope. That bit of scruff turned out to be a pulsar — a small, spinning star.

Bell was in Calgary to speak at Beakerhead on Wednesday

Jocelyn Bell was recently awarded the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize for her discovery of pulsars 50 years ago. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell was a post-grad student at Cambridge in 1967 when she noticed 'a bit of scruff' in the sky through a radio telescope. That bit of scruff turned out to be a pulsar — a small, spinning star.

Her discovery has been described as one of the most significant achievements of the 20th century. But in 1974, when a Nobel Prize was awarded for that discovery, only her male colleagues were honoured.

The British astronomer was recently honoured with the Special Breakthrough prize — a $3 million award annually to scientists in the Life Sciences, Physics and Mathematics — for her discovery of pulsars.

Bell was in Calgary on Wednesday, speaking at Calgary's Beakerhead festival, which celebrates arts, sciences and engineering. 

She spoke with CBC's Doug Dirks on The Homestretch.

Q: What went through your mind when you were awarded the $3 million Special Breakthrough prize?​

A: I couldn't find any words, for once in my life I was speechless. 

Q: You've chosen to donate that $3 million dollar prize to a charity. Tell us about that.

A: It's going to the institute of physics which is the professional body for physicists in Britain and Ireland, and it's going to set up student funding for grad students, research students, in any branch of physics, provided they are from an under represented group in physics. 

Q: Of course you were one of few female astronomers back in 1967, can you describe the situation that led to your discovery?

A: I was working there as a grad student. I was quite over-awed by the place. I was quite sure they'd made a mistake in admitting me, and I was sure they were going to throw me out at some point when they discovered their mistake. So, I decided my game plan was to work as hard as I could so that when they threw me out I wouldn't have a guilty conscience, I'd known I'd done my best. 

I think I was a bit sick actually, I was being really, really thorough, and I spotted this little anomaly that took up about half a millimetre on my charts, and I had 500 metres of charts, so it really was a tiny anomaly. 

Q: And what was that anomaly?

A: It turned out to be an object out there among the stars that emits a stream of pulses of radio wavelengths.

Q: And why is that significant?

A: Because nobody had even dreamed that they could exist. It turned out to be the detection of a new type of star, or should I say, a new type of way that a star can die because it's one of the end points of a star's life. They're called neutron stars or pulsars. 

Q: After the discovery, which was groundbreaking, as you described, I understand it was an unusual reaction from the press in the U.K., can you tell us about that?

A: No it was not unusual. Unfortunately, it was all too common. 

After the announcement of the discovery the press would interview us. My thesis advisor, Tony Hewish and myself. And they'd ask Tony Hewish about the astrophysical significance of this discovery, which Tony duly told them, and then they'd turn to me for what they call the human interest. Which means I was asked what my bust, waist and hip sizes were, how tall I was? Would I describe myself as brunette or blond — no other colours were allowed. Was I taller than Princess Margaret or not so tall? And the photographers were saying, could I please undo some buttons on my blouse to show a bit more cleavage. 

Q: And what did that say about the time you were in?

A: It said that young women were there for the titillation of men and they wanted sexy photos, please. 

Q: How did you overcome that?

A: You can't. It's too big a thing for one person to overcome. 

Q: But your work stands the test of time. 

A:  Well yes, the work does, and fortunately in Britain there is far less treatment of young women that way. We have moved on. Not as far as I'd like, but we've moved on.

Q: And what about the Nobel Prize and what happened with that?

A: This was the first Nobel Prize to anything astronomical, so it was quite a landmark and I recognized immediately that it was creating a precedent and that a lot of other astronomers would get Nobel Prizes in due course, and that has been the case, which has been great. 

At that stage, the image of how science was done was that there was a senior person, usually a man, and under him a fleet of minions and they just didn't count. They didn't get noticed. 

Q: And yes it was your discovery that led to the Nobel Prize, so what about that?

A: Well, I was one of the minions. Full stop. 

Q: How did you manage that?

A: Well there is not much you can do about it. Which is the first thing to note. Actually I think looking back on it I've done very well out of not getting a Nobel Prize because I've got every other prize that moves.

 The other nice thing is that if you get a Nobel Prize there is this fantastic week in Stockholm around the award, which is out of this world, and then it's all over. Nobody gives you anything after that because they don't think they can match the Nobel. So I think it's been more fun not getting the Nobel Prize and get all these other things, thank you.

Q: You're known for supporting women and diversity in science, what advice would you give to young girls who are interested in pursuing a career in science now?

A:  Go for it. There is still a bit of an image that women can't do science and that is absolute rubbish. Women can do science, do do science and get great fun out of doing science. So go out and do it. 

Q: How did you develop your passion for it and what kind of support did you get as a youngster?

A: Initially, when we started what we call secondary school at about age 12, they sent the boys to the science lab and the girls to the cookery room. The girls were going to learn needle work and cooking, and the boys were going to learn science. And I protested, and that didn't cut much ice, but my parents protested and phoned the head teacher and when the science class next met it had three girls and all the boys. I came top in that class the first term. 

With files from The Homestretch.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson