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«Case Studies of Women Astronomers: Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- ) Radio Astronomer Objective Students will learn about the life and career of ...»

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Case Studies of Women Astronomers:

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- )

Radio Astronomer


Students will learn about the life and career of astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell through her own words.


Susan Jocelyn Bell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 15, 1943. Her father was an architect and

an avid reader. Through his books, Jocelyn was introduced to the world of astronomy. Her family and the

staff of the Armagh Observatory, which was near her home in Belfast, encouraged her interest in astronomy. Jocelyn Bell's parents very strongly believed in educating women. When she failed the examination required for students wanting to pursue higher education in British schools, they sent her to a boarding school to continue her education.

In 1965, Jocelyn Bell earned a B.S. degree in physics from the University of Glasgow. Later that same year she began work on her Ph.D. at Cambridge University. It was while she was a graduate student at Cambridge, working under the direction of Antony Hewish, that Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars.

Bell's first two years at Cambridge were spent assisting in the construction of an 81.5-megahertz radio telescope that was to be used to track quasars. The telescope went into operation in 1967. It was Jocelyn Bell's job to operate the telescope and to analyze over 120 meters of chart paper The Open University, courtesy AIP Emilio produced by the telescope every four days. After several Segre Visual Archives weeks of analysis, Bell noticed some unusual markings on the chart paper. These markings were made by a radio source too fast and regular to be a quasar. Although the source's signal took up only about 2.5 centimeters of the 121.8 meters of chart paper, Jocelyn Bell recognized its importance. She had detected the first evidence of a pulsar.

In February of 1968, news of the discovery made by Jocelyn Bell was published in the journal Nature.

Further studies by groups of astronomers around the world identified the signals as coming from rapidly rotating neutron stars. These objects, first noticed by Jocelyn Bell, became known as pulsars. The term pulsar is an abbreviation for pulsating radio star or rapidly pulsating radio sources.

Jocelyn Bell received her Ph.D. in radio astronomy from Cambridge University in 1968. She married during that same year and changed her name to Burnell. Since leaving Cambridge in 1968, Dr. Bell Burnell has studied the sky in almost every region of the electromagnetic spectrum. She has received many honors and awards for her contributions to science.

Instructions In small groups students will read assigned sections of the transcript an oral history interview with Bell, conducted by Dr. David DeVorkin, senior curator of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum on May 21, 2000 at the Carnegie Institution, Washington, D.C. Students will answer as many discussion questions as possible and then compile their answers in a class-wide discussion.

For the full biography and related audio clips, visit http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/

–  –  –

Section I: Burnell’s Early Life and Educational Expectations of Her Parents Burnell: Our parents were obviously much more delighted when we did well at school and that was obviously valued by them. And if you hadn’t done well it was going to be less enjoyable going home after school. They really saw education as being important, and important that we were stimulated and reached whatever level we could reach; that we reached our potential academically.

DeVorkin: Did they have specific expectations?

Burnell: I don’t know that they had thought it through. Probably particularly not for the girls. I became conscious in later life that I had been given an education that enabled me to do all kinds of jobs, but often jobs weren’t open to me. You know, so in that sense I think they hadn’t thought it through and they hadn’t thought what young women do when they have a university education and they get married and have children. It’s issues just like that where I think they hadn’t seen it through, but perhaps it’s asking too much that they should have.

DeVorkin: Of that generation, certainly. But I’m curious as to how much gender specificity there was in your family between you, the three sisters, and the brother. Were you definitely on different tracks?

Burnell: Depends who you’re talking of. As far as our parents were concerned, no, we were not; we were equal. But I mentioned maids and cooks and nannies. They were almost invariably Southern Irish Roman Catholics, and they came out of a society that was very strongly patriarchal. And one of the incidents from my early life is my brother came along eighteen months after me, and the nanny would go out with the baby in the pram and me togging along beside and go meet other nannies, you know, other young women like them, and they would say, “Isn’t it great that Mrs. Bell has a son now?” in my hearing. And I don’t quite know what happened, but somehow or other I was taken to the family doctor and the family doctor spotted this and told my parents what was going on.

DeVorkin: And what did they do about it?

Burnell: They say, “Very obviously, we value little girls as much as little boys.” And I can remember that, because it didn’t quite seem to ring true, or it didn’t seem to me to be the whole story is perhaps a fairer way of saying it. You know, I think my brain was already saying, “Well, you may say that, but the nanny says differently,” you know.

DeVorkin: Did you ever envy boys?

Burnell: Yes, frequently in my life.

On sex differences and early schooling:

DeVorkin: Do you recall when it was that you first started realizing that boys had a better shake of it in this world?

Burnell: I think the first instance was when my brother was born and the reactions of the Irish staff in the house. That was the first sense of it. I probably didn’t meet it again until college level, I suspect. No, I can remember one incident. This gets a little complicated, so bear with me while I explain it. In Britain in those days kids sat at exam at age eleven, and this exam was supposed to determine — it was called the 11+ To access the interview transcript in its entirety, visit http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/31792.html.

Prepared by the Center for History of Physics at AIP 3 (“eleven plus”) which was the age you sat it at. This exam was supposed to determine whether you were academic or non-academic, and they segregated kids into two streams, with very little cross currents thereafter. And if you passed this exam you went to a school where you did academic subjects; if you failed this exam you went to a school where you were taught carpentry and metalwork if you were a boy, and secretarial skills and cookery if you were a girl. And I failed this exam at the age of eleven. My parents had already decided to send me away to this boarding school in England, and that would happen in about two years’ time. And for the intervening two years they somehow wangled it that I went in with the academic stream and had the sort of full academic education for those two years.

DeVorkin: How did you fail it? Have you thought about that in your life?

Burnell: Yes. I think I can see what was going on, because my brother and the next sister also failed it. My parents deliberately chose not to send us to schools that crammed you for that exam. They sent us to a much smaller school where they thought the education might be broader. I’m not sure it was, because the standard of education — well, it may have been broader, but it wasn’t to a good standard. So, I don’t know.

So basically I think we weren’t very well prepared for it. We were probably also late developers, and I think it’s something to do with the fact also that they tested you on English, math and what they called intelligence. They gave you a number of shapes and said, “Which two are the same?” You know, I can’t think of another word for it, but you’ve maybe come across those kinds of tests. And fairly simple numerical tests — you know, 1, 3, 5, and 7, what’s the next number kind of thing. They didn’t do any science. And I’ll come back to that in just a moment. Now I can remember the first day of those intervening two years where I was with kids that had passed the exam. Word went ‘round that at two o’clock in the afternoon all the girls were to go to the domestic science room and all the boys were to go to the science lab. And I was a bit puzzled by this, but I went along in case it was some kind of special announcement or something. And it turned out

that there was an assumption that all the girls, even these academic ones, would take domestic science:

cookery and needlework.

DeVorkin: That’s what domestic science is.

Burnell: Yes. While the boys were doing physics, chemistry, biology. And I suspected this was wrong, so after about twenty minutes in this first domestic science class I said to the teacher, “I think I’m in the wrong place.” And so did two other girls, and three of us moved to the science class. But there were presumptions about our roles in society.

DeVorkin: Sure. But no resistance from the teacher?

Burnell: Not once we’d had the courage to challenge it, no. If we hadn’t had the courage, it might have taken a week or two to get it sorted out. So I went to the science, and that first term we were doing astronomy and physics. And in the exam at Christmastime I came top of the class, in spite of the fact that I was the one who had failed this 11+.

DeVorkin: So you were in a state school, and there was the two-year interval before you were going to go off to boarding school.

Burnell: That’s right, yes.

DeVorkin: And you took astronomy at that time.

Burnell: They taught a little bit of astronomy as part of a combined science course that we did in the first year, maybe the first two years. So it started with astronomy, physics; it moved on to chemistry; it moved on to botany, as far as I can remember. And I don’t recall what we did in the second year.

–  –  –

Burnell: I don’t remember a lot in the school other than the textbook that we would have been issued with for that particular course. There probably was a school library, but I don’t remember a lot about it. My parents however were frequently buying us books, and particularly when my parents realized that I might have a scientific bent, having come top of this science exam, if I expressed an interest in a book about science it would come along pretty quickly.

DeVorkin: So again there was nothing but encouragement.

Burnell: Yes, indeed. Absolutely.

Section II: On Burnell’s Interest in Astronomy and Physics DeVorkin: Back to this scoring the highest in astronomy, tell me a little bit about what your impressions are of how this happened.

Burnell: I just took to the subject. It was rather more physics than astronomy, I have to say. It was just a little bit about the constellations but you might be interested to know, I got 97% on that exam and the one thing I got wrong was the speed of light. They asked us what was the speed of light and I wrote down 186,000 miles per second, which is correct. And for the first time in my life, looked at that number and thought, ‘That’s very big. That can’t be right.’ Scored out ‘seconds’ and wrote ‘hours.’ DeVorkin: Wonderful. So that’s the first time you realized just how big that number was. What was it that triggered that; that you saw something that just was so counter-intuitive?

Burnell: I guess what I’m saying is, even in that first exam I had learnt to check that my answers seemed sensible, that where I came up with a numerical value, that it was reasonable, whatever reasonable means.

DeVorkin: Oh this wasn’t a memory thing, you had to calculate it?

Burnell: No, it was a memory thing, but one can remember numbers wrongly or units wrongly so I think I had already built in some kind of checking system, and it was just unfortunate that I had never sort of thought about that number before this exam.

DeVorkin: What was it about physics that fascinated you most, that drew you to it?

Burnell: Well, first of all I could clearly do it, when actually a lot of my classmates couldn’t do it and that gives one a great boost. I think we tend to like the things we’re good at. So, first of all I could do it. When I went away to boarding school at age 13, not only did I discover that I could do it and my classmates were struggling, I also discovered that I could explain it to my classmates and quite a few evenings in that boarding school were spent explaining to classmates how to do the problems that were physics homework.

That gives one authority as well!

Section III: On Burnell’s Early Experiences with Astronomy DeVorkin Did you see any astronomical facilities like the early Jodrell Bank?

–  –  –

Burnell: Yes. Well, the Armagh Observatory has a lovely old main building for which they need architectural advice for maintenance — you know, the roof is leaking and you know what do we do and how much do we need to do kind of thing, and we want to convert this, if we take down this wall will it fall down kind of thing. So there were those kinds of responsibilities. But he was also the architect for the new planetarium that they built there. This comes a little bit later. This was about 1967, ‘68, but features in the pulsar story. He was the architect for the planetarium because it was part of the observatory. And there were various other jobs an architect had to do. You know, one of the domes was leaking, and that kind of thing.

DeVorkin: So he was an architect who would do detail technical work; he was not only conceptual, but mechanical as well.

Burnell: Yes. He did both new buildings ab inicio and gave advice on a sort of contract basis for existing buildings. And at one point he let fall to the astronomy people at the observatory that his eldest daughter was interested in astronomy. I must have been in my teens — fifteen, sixteen by this stage.

DeVorkin: And you were already at boarding school.

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