Category Archives: History

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

A post for Ada Lovelace Day.

A woman was the first to identify a pulsar (and the next three after that). Reading through 96 feet of radio charts every day, Jocelyn Bell Burnell identified a regularly repeating bit of “scruff” which came from the same direction in space every day.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Photo from the Wikimedia Commons by Harry the Dirty Dog, in the public domain.

After either:

  1. being excluded from lab meetings in which her supervisor advanced the theory that they were receiving a transmission from aliens (the popular recounting)
  2. walking in on a high-level meeting in which her supervisor and his colleagues laughed about the possibility (her own retelling),

she went through the charts and found another repeating radio source at the same frequency. After Christmas, she found two more.

It should be noted that she feels she’s earned exactly as much credit as she deserves because, again, she’s about the only one who does. Six years later, the 1974 Nobel for physics was awarded to astronomers for the first time – her supervisor and her colleague. In fact, her supervisor was cited by the Nobel committee “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars.” On the Nobel, she has said, “Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.” But then she continued, “Finally, I am not myself upset about it –after all, I am in good company, am I not!”

In the BBC 2010 series Beautiful Minds she said:

One of the things women bring to a research project, or indeed any project, is they come from a different place, they’ve got a different background. Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males for decades and women view the conventional wisdom from a slightly different angle — and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument, they can give a different perspective of what science is.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell brought her perspective in to a nascent field; she was involved in naming, developing and interpreting it. Human knowledge is richer for her mind and her work.


Wasn’t it very rare to have a woman Ph.D. candidate in science back then? Well, here’s an anecdote from the Belfast Telegraph:

There was a tradition among the students that when a female walked into a lecture theatre all the guys stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk. And I faced that for every class I walked into for my last two years.

Posted from Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

(link)Street View, Toronto 1876 edition.

Seriously beautiful, especially the border sketches which to me a lot like historical Hong Kong (or probably any British colony of the era).
CAMH-trin U of T is basically part field, part park, save for Spadina Crescent (then Knox) and UC (then Provincial College, apparently).  North-east of the big CAMH complex on the left is Trinity in its original site (now Trinity-Bellwoods).  Vic was still in Coburg at the time; not sure where St. Mike’s was (yes, technically I’m an alumnus).

You can spot St. Stephen’s-in-the-Fields near the Spadina-College intersection; that’s the only part of Kensington I recognize.  This was a couple of decades after the area was subdivided from an estate, but before it became home to waves of immigrants.  And the Grange is further south, before it was split by Dundas I guess.

Osgoode South-east of that, is the palatial Osgoode Hall, at the foot of College Ave.   The surrounding area is pretty much unrecognizable, and I think this was before it became Chinatown.

StLawrenceSouthSouth east of St. James (that biggest church on Church), you can see the North Market in its original form, and the (relatively) tiny thing across from it was the City Hall and jail.

This map is really worth checking out, but it is a 76mb JPG, so you may want to use a lab.
You can also see it in The Historical Atlas of Toronto, though it’s a bit harder to pick out details in a physical copy (this thing is serious huge).  Also, the amazon link is for reference only – buy it at Book City or any other local bookstore if you can, because it’s kind of weird to celebrate this historical bookish dedication to the city then failing to support its contemporary form.