Astronomers appoint first woman president: Susan Watts meets a scientist whose study of the Sun has given her a starring role in her profession

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A formidable male stronghold has fallen to women with the appointment of Carole Jordan as president of the Royal Astronomical Society. Dr Jordan's succession to the 175-year-old post will be seen by some as the end of a gross scientific injustice - the lack of recognition of the part women have played in the exploration of the stars.

Perhaps the best-known example is that of Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who made one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the century when she spotted pulsating radio sources, or 'pulsars', as a post-graduate researcher.

'She never got the credit she deserved,' Dr Jordan said this week of her female colleague, recalling that it was the young researcher's male boss who won international acclaim for the discovery, and a Nobel prize. His assistant (now Professor Bell- Burnell, one of only two professors of physics in Britain) had to content herself with a standing ovation 20 years later when the fellows of the society awarded her its Herschel medal.

Dr Jordan works on one of the hottest science subjects in the Universe - the turbulent region above the surface of the Sun. This energetic mixture of gases has a temperature of around a million and a half degrees, 200 times hotter than the surface itself. Scientists are trying to work out what makes this region so hot. 'We think this enormous energy comes from the magnetic fields that extend from the Sun, but how that happens is the mystery,' Dr Jordan said.

She is at her most animated when talking about her work, and slightly uncomfortable on questions about her personal life. She is 52 and married to a physicist, but she prefers not to reveal his identity. Their 10-year partnership ended amicably, she said, in 1981. She has no children, but is acutely aware of the fascination her subject holds for the young. 'Astronomy is rare in being a fundamental science that is at the same time enormously accessible. People can step into their back gardens and get a sense of the wonder of it.'

Dr Jordan believes astronomers have a responsibility to talk to the public about their work. 'We rely on public money for our research, and one way of paying back that debt is to explain what we do and why.'

Yet she says that she has no particular vision of how she might turn the society outwards, towards the public. She aims to encourage the work of the education committee (which took part in the review of the national curriculum) and fellows' lecture trips to schools, but little else. 'It's just not the way I work I'm afraid. It's difficult to think of any one thing I'm going to rush out and do.'

This unhurried style should suit the society's fellows. In many ways, the society is a perfect example of the fuddy-duddy learned institution that typifies Britain's scientific tradition. Aside from its tardiness in recognising female astronomers (women were not admitted as fellows until 1915), the slogan on its badge sums up its conservative approach: 'quicquid nitet notandum' - 'whatever shines, let it be noted down'.

Dr Jordan said her overriding desire during her two-year tenure as president is to 'provide leadership', and to help to maintain a sense of community among astronomers. Her approach is fundamentally pragmatic. She sees the lack of women in science as a waste of talent. 'The reason we need more women involved is not because they are women, it's because the country is not using half its brainpower.'

She believes women turn away from science in their teenage years, usually because of peer pressure. But if women carry on past A-levels and into science research, the next major hurdle comes when they seek a permanent academic post. 'The people making these appointments are mostly men. When they see a young man they immediately think this person has a career ahead of them and aspirations . . . When they see a young woman, they see a young woman. I don't mean in a sexual sense, just that they see her as she is now . . . they cannot project ahead and imagine her leading a team, because they have no images to draw on.

'What people have to realise is that women of all ages have exactly the same aspirations as their male counterparts.'

(Photograph omitted)

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