Page last updated at 09:15 GMT, Wednesday, 23 May 2012 10:15 UK

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: How science was a man's world


Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her struggle to work in science

The discovery of radio pulsars in the 1960s was hailed as a great astronomical leap forward but when it came to a Nobel Prize the woman on the team was left off the list.

Two men picked up the award in 1974 leaving astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell with nothing for her role in discovering the neutron stars that provided the strongest confirmation yet of Einstein's theory that physicists believe best explains gravity.

One of her fellow astronomers at the time, Sir Fred Hoyle, roundly condemned the decision but today Professor Dame Bell Burnell harbours no bitterness.

"At the time of the prize I had a small child about 18 months old and was trying to keep working and it was proving very difficult.

If you blushed of course they enjoyed it and made even more noise and I discovered that one can control one's blushing
Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

"In those days mothers didn't work - so a bit of me said 'yes men get prizes and women look after babies'," she told Stephen Sackur on the BBC's HARDtalk programme.

"But actually I think it wasn't so much the fact I was a woman. It was the fact I was a student. They just didn't know I existed let alone what gender I was.

"I have discovered that even if you do describe it as an injustice you can do incredibly well out of not getting a Nobel Prize."

Boss man

Professor Bell Burnell was a postgraduate student at Cambridge when she discovered the first radio pulsars with her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish.

She had been in control of the day to day results from a giant radio telescope picking up the signals from pulsars in space.

What is a Pulsar?
Crab pulsar (NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al)
Produced in huge stellar explosions
They weigh thousands of millions of tonnes
Remnant core is highly magnetised
Radiation focused into intense beams
Beams sweep around as dead star spins
Pulsars appear like ticks to observer
Stability of ticks rivals atomic clocks
Also know as neutron stars

Hewish went on to pick up the Nobel Prize with Dr Martin Ryle, another member of the team.

She said the decision not to give her the award did not rankle because it was the first time a physics prize had gone to anything astronomical.

It raised the profile of astronomy in the physics community.

Scientific research in the 1960s was carried out under a much more hierarchical structure than today.

"The old model of science and the one that pertained when Nobel Prizes were set up was that there was a boss man.

"And it was a man probably in a white coat and under this man were a whole load of very junior folk who weren't expected to think or contribute.

"They just did what the boss man told them."

Cat calls

It had been tough at times to be the only woman.

At one point when she was an undergraduate at Glasgow University the cat calls from male students were so bad she had to teach herself not to blush.

"If you blushed of course they enjoyed it and made even more noise and I discovered that one can control one's blushing.

"I have lost it now but I know it can be done and it was important so to do."

Women can still face an uphill struggle to get on in science.

In 2005, Larry Summers, the then President of Harvard University sparked controversy with a discussion of why women may have been underrepresented in science.

He suggested the reasons were biological and that men and women had a "different availability of aptitude at the high end when it comes to science".

Professor Bell Burnell, who went on to become the first ever woman president of the Institute of Physics, said there was no evidence to support his claim.

"Summers is confusing nurture with nature," she added while highlighting south-east Asia where it is "perfectly normal" for women to pursue a career in science and engineering.

In Scotland, a recent study found that only a quarter of women studying science and technology went on to a profession which involved the use of what they had learned.

To fix this Professor Bell Burnell believes the challenge ahead lies in changing the culture of mainly English speaking countries.

She said: "There are a number of ways you could do it, for me being a role model was quite an important one, just to show there are women doing science, enjoying it and being good at it. You can do it through paying better or allowing special recruitment to counteract historic imbalances.

"There are actually many, many things you can do but the most important one is to make sure that the climate in an organisation is open and friendly to women."

HARDtalk is broadcast on the BBC News Channel on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 0030 and 0430 BST and on the BBC World News Channel on Monday to Thursday at 0330, 0830, 1530 and 2030 GMT.

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