Tag Archives: Cambridge

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.

1960: Discovery of Pulsars

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1960s, the discovery of Pulsars.

“In 1967, a twenty-four year old post graduate student made one of the greatest astronomical discoveries in living memory,” explains TV presenter and writer Gia Milinovich, who is championing the discovery of pulsars as the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years.

When analysing three miles of radio telescope data by hand in 1967 at the University of Cambridge, Jocelyn Bell identified a regular pulse of radiowaves. Seemingly too regular to be anything but man-made, months of further research led Jocelyn to discover the origin of the signal was over 200 light-years away.

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.
Credit: National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Known now as pulsars, these rapidly spinning, very dense dead stars produce beams of radiowaves which are periodically directed at the Earth. Astronomers have since detected more than 1800 pulsars, and their precise nature make them useful tools for astronomical observations.

In the past Jocelyn’s work has been over looked – the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to her PhD supervisor Anthony Hewish without any mention of Jocelyn – but she is now rightly remembered for her discovery. Vote here for the discovery of Pulsars.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

1950s: Double Helix

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1950s, Double Helix: Discovering the structure of DNA.

Almost all frontiers of biological research in the 21st century owe their origins to the work of two Cambridge scientists (James Watson and Francis Crick) and their contemporaries at King’s College London (Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins).

Watson and Crick’s collaboration began in 1951, drawing on a range of evidence – including chemical techniques and X-ray crystallography – to determine the elusive structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). A breakthrough arrived when Watson was shown Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography photos of DNA, which clearly suggested a helical structure. As Watson wrote in his memoir: ‘The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my heart began to race’.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

Understanding the structure of DNA, particularly how a sequence of simple nucleotides (A, C, G & T) can encode genetic information, has revealed ‘the secret of life’ – as Francis Crick announced in a Cambridge pub in 1953. A decade later, Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work (Franklin missed out as Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously).

Listen here to broadcaster and writer, Judith Hann, explain why deciphering the structure of DNA should get your vote, and click here to see a reconstruction of Watson and Crick’s DNA model in the Museum.