Academia · Feminism · Science

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Careering Through Astronomy

Last week, after work, I found myself wandering down to the English Speaking Union, of all places. A strange enough venue (and Google Maps told me that the Edinburgh Toastmasters meet there, though how it knows that I can’t guess). I was there to see a lecture by Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

I am an unabashedly enormous fangirl for Dame Prof JBB and not without good reason. How many people do you know who discovered a new category of star during their PhDs?  Exactly. Her realisation that a strangely regular radio signal was celestial and not, in fact, manmade, revolutionised astrophysics. Through that signal, she discovered the pulsar. Because of the discovery of pulsars, we also know about neutron stars. Thanks, in part, to the discovery of neutron stars, the science that predicted the existence of black holes was just that little bit more credible.  Those are some pretty incredible consequences for a blip in your data – no matter how regular that blip is.

Jocelyn Bell Burnel Careering Through Astronomy1

I first heard her speak at the launch of the new Glasgow Science Centre planetarium back in 2015 (link here, to an old, inactive tumblr blog that I used to post to). During that event we got a quick, whistle-stop tour through the cosmos, to show off the facility, and then Bell Burnell surprised us all by talking about poetry instead of astrophysics. It turns out that she collects poems with an astronomical theme. Unexpected as it was, it was delightful. It turns out she’s an excellent speaker, almost no matter what she talks about.

Last week she was talking about her career, rather than her penchant for poems. We heard about her early days in school, when the girls were sent to domestic science classes while the boys went to real science classes. About how her parents hit the roof and the next day she, and two other girls, were placed right at the front of the physics class.

We also heard about her undergraduate degree at my old university, Glasgow. Apparently, at the time, there was a tradition that when a female student entered a physics lecture theatre, the male students would shout, stamp their feet, wolf-whistle, cat-call and basically do everything they could to make the woman feel uncomfortable. Charming. I’m pleased to say that things had changed a lot by the time I attended my physics undergraduate classes there, although they were by no means perfect.


Joceyln Bell Burnell
Thank goodness she didn’t leave!


Then she spoke about going down to Cambridge to do her PhD in radio astronomy. Here she said something really fascinating: during her PhD she suffered from imposter syndrome. She didn’t know at the time that that was what it was, but she did feel like everyone else there was very clever and that she wasn’t. For someone who literally revolutionised their field to have felt like that at the time is fascinating and I think it’s a really important message.


Jocelyn Bell Burnel Careering Through Astronomy
The middle trace there is from a pulsar, the first ever discovered.


Of course, we heard a bit about pulsars and neutron stars but, not being an academic talk, she kept the astrophysics to a minimum. I sympathised with her working long hours in the lab and the field, dealing with temperamental equipment and unsympathetic supervisors and it’s interesting to see how little PhD projects have changed in the last 50 or so years.

At the end, she talked a bit about women in physics and about Athena SWAN, a project she was involved with setting up, with the goal of promoting women in STEM fields in Academia. It’s hard to imagine a better role model for anyone considering a career in science, but especially for women considering. Fortunately, she’s not only a great role model, but she’s actively working to fix the inequalities women in science face. Forgive me, but my fangirling isn’t going anywhere soon.

2 thoughts on “Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Careering Through Astronomy

  1. Professor Dame Bell Burnell was a guest of honour at an SF con I was at a few years ago and I found her engaging and a very good speaker, as well as being very knowledgeable. And she was talking about Athena SWAN and her involvement with trying to get women and girls more engaged in science then as well. I’m glad she’s still pushing at that.

    Liked by 1 person

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