Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Jocelyn Bell-Burnell: The Life Scientific

There is a saying that "the pictures are better on the radio", and I think that this episode of a BBC Radio 4 Programme The Life Scientific is a good example of the saying. I was only able to listen to the first 15 minutes or so before I went out this morning, and have now downloaded the podcast to listen to at my leisure.

If you don't have time to listen to more than the first five minutes of the programme, do listen to that five minutes. It strikingly portrays the sexist treatment that Jocelyn was subject to in the first years of her scientific career, a career that included the "no-Bell" (Nobel) prize awarded to her male colleagues for a discovery that was in essence Joceyln's. If you listen further (to around 11 minutes), you will learn how it was attention to very fine detail - a quarter of an inch of data in hundreds of feet of chart recorder paper, analysed manually - that led to the discover of pulsars for which that prize was awarded.

As I say, the pictures are better on the radio. This programme gives a very nice picture of Jocelyn Bell-Burnell's personality - very clear about what she thinks of her treatment in the early years of her career, but at the same time without any kind of "chip" on her shoulder as a result. It is also fascinating to hear her talking about her discovery of pulsars. The programme also gives a very good picture of what scientific research was like in the days before computers became a part of every day life and before Hubble, describing how Jocelyn helped build her own radio telescope for her PhD and how she had to interpret the recorded observations manually from the chart recorder read out.

Do listen to the whole programme here. This link takes you to other BBC sources relating to the life and work of Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, including her appearance on Desert Island Discs in December 2000.

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