On Tuesday I attended our annual ‘Fellows of the Science Museum’ reception, in which we recognise the contributions of leading scientists and educators. This year we were particularly celebrating female scientists, with a speech from new Fellow Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
In 1967, Jocelyn was a PhD student at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge. Her job was to analyse data from one of the telescopes for the characteristic twinkling of quasars. One day she noticed a ‘bit of scruff’ on the telescope’s charts and, rather than dismiss it as interference, decided to investigate further. It turned out to be a pulsed signal, always coming from the same patch of sky and repeating at regular intervals. For a short time, the Cambridge team had to consider the possibility that it was a signal from an alien civilisation – they jokingly dubbed it LGM-1, for Little Green Men.
Jocelyn and her supervisor Antony Hewish (who’s also a Science Museum Fellow) soon detected signals from other parts of the sky and realised they had found a new class of cosmic object – a rapidly-spinning dense star. They are called pulsars and over 1800 are now known.
Jocelyn was recently the subject of the BBC’s Beautiful Minds. Beauty is the theme of next Wednesday’s Science Museum Lates, and Jocelyn will be there talking about her work and inspirations. Hope to see you there!