How women in science have been systematically robbed of their ideas

Anyone whoever doubted the harsh realities of patriarchy need only look upon the history of science, writes Andy Martin

Monday 21 January 2019 10:51
Jocelyn Bell (left) was instrumental in discovering pulsars, yet her supervisor Antony Hewish took the credit
Jocelyn Bell (left) was instrumental in discovering pulsars, yet her supervisor Antony Hewish took the credit

I’m not saying anybody stole anybody else’s Nobel prize. Nothing was stolen. At the same time, it feels as if somebody was robbed. But you decide. The facts are clear enough. Back in 1967, Jocelyn Bell was a 20-something graduate student at New Hall (now Murray Edwards College) in Cambridge, studying astrophysics, doing a PhD in radio astronomy. In fact she was one of the pioneers of radio astronomy in Cambridge.

It wasn’t all theory back then. You still had to build the “telescopes”, which looked more like antennae, sprouting up out of the countryside. Bell got her hands dirty, banging a thousand poles into the fields north of Cambridge, and stringing 120 miles of wire between them. From the point of view of outer space, it must have looked like acres of fine mesh laid down like dew on the green and pleasant lands. What Bell and others were trying to catch in their net was electromagnetic manna from heaven.

Bell had the job of analysing the data. Sounds easy now, but I know how hard it was back then (I have a twin brother who really is a rocket scientist, wrote his PhD on X-ray astronomy, and used to curse the roomfuls of paper he regularly had to scour in search of elusive gems of hard information). Bell was specifically looking for fluctuations in radio emissions, known rather lyrically as “interplanetary scintillations”. She had to keep an eye on four three-track pen recorders, which collectively churned out 96-feet of printouts every single day.

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