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My battle with sexism, by scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell who helped unlock the secrets of the universe

By Eoin Loughlin

Published 20/07/2015

Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell addressing a TEDx event at Stormont on the subject of women in science

A Northern Ireland astrophysicist once dubbed the ‘Most Inspirational Living Woman Scientist’ has told how she had to battle sexism to pursue her career.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was born in Belfast and grew up in Lurgan, said she was initially denied an opportunity to study science at school and was instead encouraged to take up subjects like cooking and needlework.

“When I went to my local grammar school, Lurgan College, girls were not encouraged to study science,” she said. “My parents hit the roof and, along with other parents, demanded a curriculum change.”

Her father, an architect, was involved in the design of the Armagh planetarium and he would often bring her to see it during it construction.

One day he brought home some books on astronomy from the library which she started to read. After the curriculum change allowed her to study the sciences, Jocelyn knew what she wanted to do with her life.

She went to Glasgow to study natural philosophy and followed that with a PhD in radio astronomy at Cambridge. As part of her PhD she worked with a team investigating quasars.

“These look like stars but are much further away and contain massive amounts of energy. I was using a radio telescope and one day I saw unusual signals on our recording equipment.

“I wondered what the hell I’d found. When I told the rest of the team they assumed it was human interference, or I’d wired up the equipment wrong.

“In the end, they agreed these signals were coming from outer space. I nicknamed the pulses ‘LGM’, which stood for ‘Little Green Men’, but they were later changed to pulsars.”

Dame Jocelyn’s discovery was not met with the acclaim she deserved, however. “When the Press found out I was a woman, we were bombarded with inquiries,” she said. “My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest. Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”

Even though her name was listed second on the paper which was published about her findings, she was overlooked for the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics, most probably because she was a woman.

Dame Jocelyn said: “I wasn’t angry, because it opened up the prize to astrophysicists for the first time.I may not have got the Nobel Prize, but I’ve won countless other awards, including ‘Most Inspirational Living Woman Scientist’.”

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