The Current

Astrophysicist hopes history's trailblazing women can help young girls look to the stars

Astrophysicist Jo Dunkley worries that as our understanding of the universe gets more complex, people are daunted by trying to understand outer space. She wants everyone to look to the stars, especially young girls who could be inspired by trailblazing female scientists that came before them.

Jo Dunkley worries that people are daunted by trying to understand outer space

Astrophysicist and author Jo Dunkley wants people to get excited by the mysteries of the universe, especially young people who may consider a career in science. (Suki Danda)

Read Story Trancsript

Originally published on Feb 27, 2019

An astrophysicist wants young girls to get interested in unlocking the secrets of the universe, and she's got just the role models to inspire them to do it.

"There are so many biases — unconscious and conscious — that are pushing really talented young women away from pursuing careers in science," said Jo Dunkley, an astrophysicist and author of Our Universe: An Astronomer's Guide.

Dunkley argued that women have made astounding discoveries throughout the history of astronomy, despite not getting the credit they deserve. She explained that in 1974, Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, a new class of stars. But the Nobel Prize for this discovery didn't go to the PhD student, it went to her supervisor.

But highlighting achievements like that could help to inspire the next generation to look to the stars.

"Where we really have to see change is in our cultural perceptions that put girls off doing physics and astronomy," she said.

Dunkley's new book, Our Universe: An Astronomer's Guide, aims at reigniting the curiosity in over ever-more complex understanding of what lies beyond the stars. (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press)

Dunkley spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about some trailblazing women. Here is part of their conversation.

We've heard about the so-called human computers at NASA, women — many of them black women — who made calculations for the space agency in the middle of the 20th century. Harvard had its own human computers as well?

At the turn of the last century, there [was a] phenomenal group of women astronomers, and they are known as the Harvard computers. And they were hired by the astronomer Edward Pickering to work at the Harvard College Observatory to study plates — images taken of stars to classify them and to measure their brightnesses, their colours, and to track their properties. It was quite painstaking work, cataloging thousands and thousands of stars. They weren't allowed to operate the telescopes themselves, and they weren't paid nearly as much as their male colleagues either, but they made these great discoveries.

One of my heroes in all of this is Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who went to work there as one of the Harvard computers in 1895. And she discovered this incredibly useful property of stars, that's now known as Leavitt's Law, where she was looking at these pulsating stars. They're called Cepheids stars, and their brightness changes with time.

So they might pulse in brightness over days, or weeks, or months. And she discovered this pattern in these stars, which said that the longer they take to pulse, the brighter they are, intrinsically.

They weren't allowed to operate the telescopes themselves, and they weren't paid nearly as much as their male colleagues.- Jo Dunkley

This pattern ... is incredibly important because it says that we actually then have a way of figuring out how bright distant things are. And then that tells us how far away they are in space.

Using Leavitt's Law, astronomers — in particular, Edwin Hubble, actually — were able to figure out that there were actually these galaxies far beyond our own.

And it's Leavitt's Law — she got credit for it then?

Well, she did, but it's only recently been called Leavitt's Law.

It was Hubble who got all the fame, for figuring out that there were galaxies beyond our own, and also that the universe was expanding. And Levitt at the time didn't get that fame. Now there's this move to really try and acknowledge … how important her work and the work of others at that time were, too.

Back row, left to right: Neelan Chung, Verity Leung, Kristina Bedford. Front row, left to right: Aydin den Ouden, Elliot Hickling. (CBC)


And there's another — there's a list, this is interesting — the Northern Irish astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

She's a huge hero of mine.

She made this great discovery, actually as a PhD student: this completely new class of stars, called pulsars. Very rapidly spinning, very, very dense stars called neutron stars. They're what kind of happens to regular stars at the very end of their lives, once they've run out of fuel and they kind of collapse.

A teaspoon of this stuff, of neutron star, would weigh as much as a whole mountain.

They can spin around very fast and send out radio pulses of light, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell serendipitously discovered these, when she was using a radio telescope that she had built as a PhD student. And she picked out this unusual signal, it was this very regular pulse of radio waves.

She found this new class of stars.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell made a ground-breaking discovery when she was still a PhD student. (Submitted by Robin Scagell via Breakthrough Foundation)

She was working with her PhD supervisor, who was then later awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery, and Bell Burnell was not awarded the Nobel Prize. And even though officially the sort of reason was given was that she was just a student at the time, there was of course the underlying question about whether it was also because she was a woman.

Yeah, because she may have been just a PhD student, but she's the one who found it. Did the Nobel organization ever correct that oversight?

They did not, but happily, just last year she was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her discovery, which is a $3 million US prize.

In keeping with her character, she decided to use that money to help support underrepresented groups do PhDs in the field.

Dunkley in Chile, where she uses giant telescopes to conduct her own research. She examines microwave radiation to explore the very beginnings of the universe. (Submitted by Jo Dunkley)

We have to remember that was the Nobel in 1974, it wasn't that long ago. This is a woman who's still living, who was totally glossed over.

That's right, yeah. I mean she's certainly well-known in the field and she's certainly been recognized. She's been a great role model to many of us, including me.

I think that if that discovery was made now, she would have been awarded it.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Karin Marley. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.