on Credit where Credit is Due

on

Today is International Women’s Day, and with it, there are many great stories about female scientists.

It’s thanks to that flurry of activity that I’ve been reminded of one of the more singular events in astronomical history – the discovery of pulsars, and whether or not Jocelyn Bell (now Bell Burnell) deserved to share the 1974 Nobel Prize. It was her discovery, while working on her thesis with Anthony Hewish, of the intermittent radio source LGM-1, now known as PSR 1919+21. But it was Hewish who got the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974.

Thus was the outrage. Many of my professors in graduate school have particularly strong feelings about this – for them, the whole thing happened while, or a few years before, they were in graduate school. It hit them pretty hard to consider that they were working in a climate where their OWN advisers could take advantage of their own work, and where they could do Nobel Prize quality work and get nothing for it. The Nobel Prize rules allow three people (or organizations) to receive the award. The 1974 award was shared between Sir Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish, which meant Bell Burnell could have been a third party (and been the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, after Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer – and those are still the only two). Of course, it’s Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s name in the history books, not his, so in a way History has rectified it.

I don’t think anyone has ever argued that Antony Hewish deserved NO credit for the discovery of pulsars. It was his experiment, it was his instrument, it was a student he’d trained, and (in Bell Burnell’s own account of the events) he was responsible for organizing the following experiments that proved Bell Burnell’s suspicion that the repeating source was not man-made (a radio source bouncing off the moon, for instance) and therefore extraterrestrial*. Bell Burnell’s own oft-repeated opinion is that her contribution did not merit inclusion in the Nobel Prize. That surprised me a little given the vehemence I’ve seen on the part of now-senior researchers.

Regardless of the particulars of that incident, it sparked an important conversation in the community and made a lot of astronomers very determined to do the Right Thing. I encountered this determination and anger many times in graduate school. My PhD adviser told me rather specifically that if I discovered anything truly remarkable, like a star closer to the Sun than Proxima Centauri, I would DEFINITELY get the credit. In a way, he was true to his word because I WAS allowed to publish a paper** about the substantially less Earth-shattering discovery that AP Columba is the closest known pre-main-sequence star system to the Sun (which may or may not still be true). He’s on the paper prominently, of course, because it was his project, a student he’d been training, his input and advice on writing it, and his data collection that made it all possible.

There’s still a lot that needs to be done on the finer points of giving people credit for things (Astronomers are notorious for ignoring the people who write our data processing pipelines, for example) but I would say the outraged reaction to Bell Burnell’s experience was a good thing for the field. And whether or not she got the Nobel Prize in Physics, you should know her name.

* The realization that the object was a spinning neutron star came a bit later.

**I was not the only person to notice AP Col; the second and fourth authors came to us as we were preparing our paper with some suspicions (and useful data) of their own… Which brings up another related point: In this case, the second author, Simon Murphy, made substantial contributions to the paper and did a lot of the analysis. That’s not always true of papers that come out of large collaborations. The way scientific papers are written in astronomy means that you know the first author did a lot of work, but unless someone asks one of us, or reads this post, they won’t know how much work any of the others actually did… It’s an imperfect system. There are some fields of physics where everyone is just listed alphabetically by last name, and you know you ALWAYS have to ask.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. In my opinion, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell WAS robbed. To me it’s clear that she wasn’t some flunkey who didn’t know what she’d stumbled across; she was a graduate student finishing her doctorate, and she was the one who tracked the thing down. It’s an unfortunate fact that many people will still minimize women’s accomplishments and rationalize away their achievements, but the outcry in the astronomical community at the time was substantial enough that I don’t know what the Nobel committee’s thinking was.

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