Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell visits Durham

28 October 2014

In the first of what will be hopefully many joint talks between the IOP North East Branch, Durham University Astronomical Society (AstroSoc), Durham University Physics Society (PhySoc) and Café Scientifique Durham City, a 175-strong audience gathered in Durham University's physics department to listen to Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell talk about her life and work.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell visits Durham
Credit: Samuel Spencer

Prof. Bell Burnell gave an introduction to pulsating radio stars (pulsars) - highly magnetized supernovae remnants that emit beams of electromagnetic radiation.  She explained how her research led to their discovery in 1967 while studying for her PhD in radio astronomy at Cambridge University.  After her discovery of pulsars experimentally, there was no certain theory explaining what they were. This led to their affectionate acronym LGM, meaning ‘little green men’. Even though astronomers never believed pulsars were extraterrestrial life forms, the nickname resulted in a storm of media attention.

Bell also discussed her younger years, recounting her struggles with the Northern Irish education system: at this time, girls were expected to study domestic science while physical and biological sciences were reserved for the boys, meaning that Bell’s parents had to fight for her place in the science classroom. She overcame this though, reaching the top of her science class by age 12 despite failing the 11+ exams. She went on to read natural philosophy at Glasgow University, overcoming hostility from her male colleagues. This adversity continued throughout her PhD and further career; rather than being recognised for her discovery, Bell was often looked to for the "human interest" in science.

The talk was greatly appreciated by the diverse audience on the night: sixth form students, undergraduates, researchers, academics, members of other scientific societies and non-scientist public were all represented.  Many were very pleased that Prof. Bell Burnell allowed plenty of time for questions after the talk, and also made herself available after the talk to speak to many of those that attended.  Durham undergraduate natural scientist, Kara-Jane Senior, who had been inspired to study physics by Prof. Bell Burnell's work, summarised the sentiment in a post on Facebook: "Just mentioned the meteor shower I saw [...] the other day, in a conversation with Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Made my life!"

The picture above shows the organising team alongside Prof. Bell Burnell - from left to right: Sadie Bartholomew (PhySoc), Josh Borrow (Cafe Scientifique), John D'Silva (Cafe Scientifique), Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Nicolle Finch (AstroSoc) and Richard Hornby (IOP North East Branch Chair).

Prior to the talk, Dr Matt Jones from Durham University gave a short speech in celebration of Professors Adams and Tanner and their recent awards.  

The Branch would like to express their thanks to Matt Jones and the staff at Durham University for providing a venue and refreshments, and to the rest of the organising team from AstroSoc, PhySoc and Cafe Scientifique; and especially to Nicolle Finch, who not only handled most of the external communication about the talk, but also took over some of the coordination from the Branch Chair when he became very unwell.