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By Alison Boyle on

For She's A Jolly Good Fellow

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

Jocelyn in 1968. (Science Museum)

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.

The signal from the first pulsar appeared on the cover of Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' LP. (Science Museum)

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. 

Part of Jocelyn’s telescope is on display in Cosmos & Culture. It might take you a while to spot it, as it doesn’t look anything like your average telescope:

The pulsar array is now retired. During use, sheep kept the 4 acres of grass neatly trimmed. (Alison Boyle)

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!