Jocelyn Bell Burnell – the astrophysicist who was overlooked for the Nobel Prize.

This week I’m returning to one of my favourite subjects, women in science. Jocelyn Bell Burnell made one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the 20th century but have you heard of her before? Me neither.

Jocelyn was born in 1943 in Lurgan, Northern Ireland and developed an interest in astronomy from her father’s books. After failing her eleven-plus she went to Lurgan College and, to her dismay, found that she was not permitted to study science – when the boys went to the science labs, the girls were taught domestic science. Keen to encourage her, her parents sent her to a Quaker boarding school in England, where she developed a talent for physics. After school, Jocelyn attended Glasgow University and there, too, suffered discrimination. Female physics students were a rarity in the early sixties and she entered a lecture room she would have to endure whistles and jeers from the male students.

After gaining a degree in physics, Jocelyn went on to Cambridge to work on her PhD, where she assisted her supervisor, Antony Hewish, in constructing a large radio telescope, a physically demanding tax that involved swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer. When it was completed, two years later, she was given the responsibility of operating the telescope. In pre-computer days, analyzing data from the telescope was arduous: chart recorders generated 96 feet of paper a day for 6 months, and all this had to be analyzed by hand. When Jocelyn first noticed curious signals, pulsing regularly at a rate of about one pulse per second, she showed Antony, who thought they must be man-made interference. It even crossed his mind that the signal may originate from alien life and dubbed the signal LGM-1, for ‘little green man’. However, Jocelyn eventually convinced Antony that the they came from an object that was moving around the sky with the stars, and thus discovered pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that provided a significant step in the understanding of black holes.

Together with the rest of her research team, Jocelyn published her work in Nature journal under the name SJ Bell so at first no one realised her gender. Soon, this significant finding attracted the attention of world’s media, and Jocelyn and Antony gave many interviews. But while interviewers would ask Antony about the astrophysical significance of the findings, they asked Jocelyn personal questions about her boyfriends and even her vital statistics! Worse was to come. Despite the fact that Jocelyn had been the first to observe these stars, Antony Hewish and a fellow researcher, Martin Ryle, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, while Jocelyn was overlooked. Fellow astronomers were outraged on her behalf, and dubbed it the ‘No Bell’ prize. But Jocelyn’s contribution has now been widely acknowledged and since then she’s received every prize in her field.

Jocelyn refused to become embittered by the oversight and continued to break new ground for women. She became the first president of the Institute of Physics, was made a dame in 2007, and is now visiting professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Now 72, she still makes regular public appearances and encourages young women to study science.




Hatshepsut: the woman who ruled Egypt as a man

I’m delving into ancient history for this week’s post, to arguably the first great woman in recorded history. Hatshepsut was born in 1507 BC, the only surviving child of the pharaoh Thutmose I and his ‘great’ wife, but had a half brother, also called Thutmose, through a ‘minor’ wife. In order to strengthen his claim to the throne, this son was married to 12 year-old Hatsheput, something that wasn’t considered unusual at the time. They had a daughter although Thutmose II bore a son, yet another Thutmose, through a harem girl. However, Thutmose II died young, when his son was still a young boy, so Hatchepsut assumed the throne as queen regent. At first Hatchepsut played her role as expected, but after three years declared herself pharaoh, claiming that the god Amun had taken the form of her father and visited her mother, and that she was the result of this union. No-one knows why she took this radical step; historians assumed it was driven by personal ambition but there may have been a threat from another branch of the royal family and she may have been acting to save the throne for her stepson

Throughout her reign, Hatshepsut dressed as a man, even wearing a false beard, and even removed the female ending from her name, calling herself His Majesty, Hatshepsu. She wasn’t trying to pass herself as a man but this was the only way to demonstrate her authority; there were no words or imaged to portray a woman with such power. However, government officials respected and supported her, and under her 22-year rule, she maintained peace, re-established trading relations lost in previous conflicts and organised trading expeditions that brought great wealth to the country.

She seemed determined never to be forgotten; she was one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt. She renovated and constructed temples and shrines throughout Egypt; the memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri and the two 100-foot granite obelisks she erected at the temple of Karnak are considered among the greatest wonders of ancient Egypt. She commissioned hundreds of statues of herself and there are heiroglyphic accounts of her life that go into an unusual level of detail, including describing her feelings: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

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Hatshepsut is thought to have died in 1478 BC, probably from bone cancer caused by a carcinogenic skin lotion found in her tomb. Toward the end of her son, Thutmose III’s reign, attempts were made to obliterate her memory, destroying statues and removing her name from monuments. It’s possible that a female ruler was seen as offensive, or that Thutmose III wanted to eliminate evidence of her reign to ensure that the royal succession ran smoothly to his son. Ironically, some of these efforts meant that her greatest work was preserved; stone walls around the granite obelisks were intended to hide them from public view but in fact protected the monuments from the elements.

In 1903, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered a tomb in the Valley of the Kings containing two bodies. One was identified as Hatshepsut’s wetnurse, and the other unidentified until 2007, when a gap in the teeth matched a molar tooth that had been found in an ivory jar inscribed with Hatshepsut’s name. Her mummy now resides in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.