Interview: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

On astrophysics, unconscious bias, and women in science

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Photo: Keiko Ikeuchi

Jocelyn Bell Burnell first noticed the unusual, recurring blip – ‘Little Green Man 1’ – on her rolls of radio telescope data when she was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in 1967. She mentions that the series of blips “lodged in her brain” and her persistence revealed the existence of pulsars; rapidly rotating neutron stars which emit regular pulses of radio waves across the sky at up to one thousand times a second.

Last year Bell Burnell was awarded the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. This prize has only been awarded thrice before: to Stephen Hawking for black hole radiation in 1974, to CERN for discovering the Higgs Boson in 2012, and the LIGO collaboration that in 2016 found gravitational waves. Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars revolutionised astrophysics and was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize; though the prize was awarded to her supervisor at Cambridge. Her exclusion from the citation is widely viewed as one of the biggest Nobel snubs; it has famously been dubbed the “No-Bell” prize.

Half a century on from her revolutionary discovery, Bell Burnell is giving back: donating her prize money from the Special Breakthrough Prize to support women and underrepresented minorities in physics.

I meet Jocelyn in the grounds of Mansfield College, where she is Professorial Fellow in Physics. She is softly spoken, thoughtful and charming, and thanks me for taking the time out of my day to speak with her. In fact, it is much the other way around; in high demand, Jocelyn had only just returned from the States where she was awarded yet another honorary degree, and is due to give a talk at Mansfield on the 14th of June. As one of my personal STEM heroines, I am delighted she agreed to sit down with me.

As we start talking, I note that the Special Breakthrough Prize commended her also for a “lifetime of inspiring scientific leadership”.

She laughs, and replies, “You’re aware of the phrase “a serial offender”? I’m a serial president! I’ve been president of several professional bodies: the Royal Astronomical Society, of the Institute of Physics nd the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and as the Pro Chancellor at Trinity College Dublin. I think it’s through those roles that I’ve provided leadership. I was the female president of the Institute of Physics, and the first female president of the Royal Society, which was only founded in 1783! It’s crazy, isn’t it.”

I exclaim that scientific history is lacking in women, and ask if she thinks things are changing.

“Yes,” she answers. “They still need to change a bit more but undoubtedly they are; I’ve just come back from the United States and in academia there is becoming greater awareness of sexual harassment, which up until now they’ve managed to sweep under the carpet. People are paying it more attention.”

I ask her what it was like working as a graduate at the University of Cambridge in a male dominated team, where she made her famous discovery.

“I wasn’t the only woman in the place. At Glasgow I had been the only woman in a class of 50 but in the radio astronomy group in Cambridge there were one or two other women. Not many, but there were some! I found Cambridge very daunting, coming from Glasgow; people seemed very confident, self-assured, self-possessed and I was at risk of running away. I now realise that I was suffering from Imposter’s Syndrome. I was quite convinced that they were going to throw me out, that they had made a mistake admitting me and that they were going to discover their mistake.

My policy was to work as hard as I could until they threw me out so I’d know I’d done my best. And I was very thorough, because the thing I discovered amounted to an anomaly of ten parts in a million, so it was fairly small. It was all rolls and rolls of chart paper.”

Jocelyn has donated all the $3 million dollars’ worth of prize money to fund women and underrepresented minorities in pursuing physics. I ask her why that decision was important to her, and why she decided to provide such admirable support.

“I don’t need three million dollars! At my stage of life, it’s very nice but what do you do with it? I thought about it a lot and decided that if the Institute of Physics would take it, that would be a good use of the money. I strongly believe that diversity in a research group strengthens the group; it’s a bit harder to manage a diverse group but it’s much more creative and flexible and robust. I reckoned, harking back to my experience as a grad student, that one of the reasons I was feeling an imposter was that I was a minority. It is to give a better chance to people who wouldn’t otherwise have had such a chance.”

I remark that representation is still a problem: physics at Oxford is one of the most male-dominated subjects at the university, with under 20% women on the course. It’s a lot better than it used to be but there’s still a massive access problem in physics at Oxford. I ask her why she thinks this still the case.

“I don’t know because they do try very hard but there aren’t many girls doing A level physics. And so, that’s a big factor in the crunch. And why aren’t there many girls doing physics? Because society in Britain says physics is a man’s subject. You have to be quite astute as well as robust to notice that and not get put off.

“It’s quite systematic: it follows you through a career in physics – as you go up the academic hierarchy there’s more wastage of the females than the males. And certainly, some of the issues are around how you have kids and raise a family and keep your research going. There’s also unconscious bias – we’re getting better at it but there’s still a bit to go.”

Bell Burnell was one a group of senior female scientists who founded the Athena SWAN awards, which recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science. 

“When I became Professor of Physics at the Open University I doubled the number of female professors of physics in the country and I thought this isn’t good enough: where are the women! We see them there at student age and gradually they disappear as you go up the ranks.

“A small group of women which I joined was concerned about the progress of women. We look particularly at the progress of academics – post doctoral and professors – and highlighted a number of issues with the way universities operated. We didn’t label unconscious bias at that point but we had a suspicion that something like that was happening. Thus we created the Athena SWAN award. Even though we started with no money and at the start the award was just a glass rose bowl, we realised that vice chancellors are competitive guys (at that point, it was just guys) and if we have any sort of prize they would compete! And they did and it gradually grew and has been exported round the world. Holding these awards signals that you’re a place that aims to be good for women and minorities – signals that they are an employer you should look at seriously. It now looks bad if a university doesn’t hold one of the awards.”

In Ireland, from 2019 all universities must hold a bronze award to be able to apply for research funding. The University of Oxford only holds a bronze award institutionally, however the physics department holds a silver award.

Recently, the global scientific collaboration that is the Event Horizon Telescope has led to the first image of a black hole. I ask her how important she thinks global collaborations like these are, and if there’s been a recent regression in this, especially in relation to countries becoming more insular.

“Collaborations happen a lot, particularly with the big projects like the detection of gravitational waves or the black hole measurements. These all need enormous groups. I think scientists are a bit slow on rewarding the ability to organise and manage big diverse groups, in different countries speaking different languages. It’s a real skill to provide that kind of leadership- probably means you publish fewer papers but it does help big science.

“Brexit is a worry for big science. I can see that other countries might go that way if they go more right wing, and this will be bad for all sorts of research. Most areas of academic work benefits from having contact with researchers who are culturally different from themselves.”

We move on to the topic of her own journey to physics, and how she got interested in it. “As soon as we started doing science at school at age 11 or 12, my school sent the boys to science and the girls to domestic science. I fought it and we ended up with three girls in the science class. I don’t think the teacher had ever taught girls before because he made us sit right up against his desk because clearly we were dynamite or something! Troublemakers…

“We did physics that term and I came top of the class – I could just do it. Through my school years I decided I wanted to do a physics degree, and through reading my father’s library books I discovered astronomy so decided I would be an astronomer and settled on radio astronomy. It was very new, developing very fast and was very exciting!”

I ask her if she considers herself a role model for women in physics, as she has a busy schedule giving talks all around the world.

“It’s one of the reasons that I accept invitations to talk in schools; to show that there are female scientists.”

Clearly, physicists come in all shapes, genders and sizes. I ask her what she thinks makes a good physicist, and how important creativity is in science.

“Thinking clearly. You have to have a fairly sharp, precise brain to think clearly but you can get locked in logical thinking and forget to look outside the box! So the ability to sometimes stop and stand back is also important. It can be quite hard work to do so.

“The ability to jump out of the box you’re currently in and size it up and realise there are other boxes is very important. You also need to be systematic because having had this bright creative idea you have to thrash it to see if it stands up and that has to be done with thoroughness and care, and rigour. You need both. But sometimes in physics there are people who go down a narrow lane and don’t see connections with anything else. It’s when you can make those connections that the important science is done.

“I think scientists from different disciplines have trouble talking to each other because they operate in rather different ways. I think Oxford and Cambridge are so wonderful because when you sit down at High Table you talk to people and find out what they’re working on which is really interesting; this kind of interaction ought to be really creative.”

Finally, I ask her if there’s been a trend over her career as a research scientist in when she’s made discoveries, and whether there’s a “correct” scientific method, as scientists work in such differing ways.

“You have to be meticulous. When I discovered pulsars I saw the blip a few times and registered that it was something anomalous but didn’t articulate it. On the fourth or fifth showing my brain said, “you’ve seen something like this before, from this bit of sky before, haven’t you?” The pulsar signal lodged in my brain.

“At one point in my career I was responsible for an X-ray astronomy satellite. This was one of the early satellites, which either worked or they didn’t, and this one did, beautifully; it kept making discoveries. I was in charge of the data pipeline, so I knew how many it made, and it usually made them on Friday afternoons, particularly on the Friday before a bank holiday weekend! There were two reasons it was so successful: firstly, it was cutting edge development and it worked. The other reason was more mundane; there should have been a US satellite that launched six months earlier, but it didn’t because their data pipeline didn’t work. They were sitting and waiting for their data and it never came.

“It was huge fun but slightly frantic as it just made discoveries all the time. The launch was from a platform off the coast of Kenya at about 8 in the morning. We were all in at work. We had a radio link, listening to the launch and about an hour in the computer programmers snuck away and said, ‘it looks like its going to work, we’d better go finish those programmes!’

“Which they did, in time! So it launched successfully at 8 o’clock in the morning and on the midday news there was the announcement of the Nobel Prize to my former supervisor, and former professor. But it was great fun working with that satellite even if it was a bit manic.”

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell gives the lecture “A Graduate Student’s Tale; discovering pulsars as a young woman” at Mansfield College, 5:30pm 14th June.

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