Women in Science & Technology

pulsarDespite decades of effort, there’s probably still some way to go. Last weekend, The Sunday Times magazine featured a “Life in the Day” of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who is a shining example of not only how to persevere in overcoming barriers but also how not to bear grudges.

For those who are unfamiliar with Dame Jocelyn’s story, and who missed the interview, she is the discoverer of pulsars.  Her parents were instrumental in forcing her local grammar school to change its curriculum, where previously “girls were not encouraged to study science”.  She eventually attained a PhD in Astrophysics at Cambridge and is still a professor at Mansfield College, Oxford.  Hers was the second name on the pulsar paper, but the 1974 Nobel prize in physics went to her (male) supervisor.

Would the same thing happen today? We would like to think not, but who knows?  Certainly, this episode had a depressingly familiar ring about it as it was very similar to the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  Leavitt was confined by her gender to mundane observational, rather than theoretical, work at Harvard College Observatory but still contrived to discover the period-luminosity ratio of Cepheid variable stars that to this day is used to determine distances across the universe. Despite her achievement she was denied the further involvement that would have won her a Nobel prize, and she died of cancer in 1921 at the age of fifty-three.  At least she has a crater on the Moon named after her.

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