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Jocelyn Bell: the true star


Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the subject of the BBC ONE NI documentary Northern Star, on Wednesday, June 13 at 10.45pm

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the subject of the BBC ONE NI documentary Northern Star, on Wednesday, June 13 at 10.45pm

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the subject of the BBC ONE NI documentary Northern Star, on Wednesday, June 13 at 10.45pm

Forty years ago, Northern Ireland-born Jocelyn Bell played a key role in the discovery of pulsars - a new kind of star which until then was entirely unknown. The work won the Nobel Prize, but Jocelyn did not share in the glory - her supervisor was awarded the honour. Tonight BBC1 Northern Ireland tells her remarkable life story in Northern Star. Here executive producer Conor Moloney tells how he finally persuaded Jocelyn to open up

When we made our pitch to BBC Northern Ireland we were pretty sure it was going to be a strong contender for commission. Jocelyn Bell Burnell's story is compelling on so many different levels.

This is a woman who failed her 11-plus, but went on to become a professor of astrophysics and a leading scientist in her field.

This is a woman who has battled through a difficult professional world dominated by men and come out the other side.

This is a woman whose science tells her that extra-terrestrial life is out there somewhere yet retains a strong religious faith.

And, of course, there was the story of her role as a post-graduate student in the groundbreaking discovery of pulsars and the subsequent Nobel Prize that some believe she should have been co-awarded.

How could BBC Northern Ireland turn down such an offering? Thankfully they didn't. They had no difficulty in seeing we had the makings of a strong documentary. Of course, it's one thing having it on paper, quite another to go and execute it.

Key interview

From the outset Jocelyn was a fantastic subject. She was also a fantastically busy subject, particularly for somebody who has supposedly scaled back her commitments. She did eventually manage to squeeze us in for the eight days we had to shoot the film.

The first thing we wanted to do was a key extended interview with Jocelyn. There would be interviews with family, friends and colleagues, but this key interview would form the spine of the documentary and it would also test the waters. How far under the skin could we get? How open was she going to be with us?

Director Niamh Sammon and I had previously met up with Jocelyn on two separate occasions. At those meetings she was naturally guarded on certain aspects of her life, professionally and personally. We really weren't sure if she would open up to us or not. I believe two things happened. Jocelyn decided that this was going to be her opportunity to put her life on record and Niamh did a fantastic job in gently pushing and probing her. While much of the documentary focuses on the discovery of pulsars and the fallout over the Nobel Prize, there is also compelling personal content.

The key interview yielded a very honest, frank account of Jocelyn's life.

She was very open about her privileged childhood in Lurgan as the daughter of Quaker parents, saying: "We had a nanny, a nurse always. For a long time there was a cook and a maid in the kitchen. There was a gardener and maybe a second gardener and there was a handyman-come-chauffeur if you want to be really grand. It was a great life."

Difficult years

Reflecting on her on her failure of the 11-plus, which she didn't fully come to terms with until her adult life, she says: "I think failing the qualifying or the 11-plus actually hurt me more than I realised. After I'd become a professor of physics at the Open University I suddenly thought this is a bit silly. So I suddenly became much more open about it. But I think probably I was hurt by the failure and didn't want to talk about it."

Jocelyn also talks openly about her difficult college years and the pressure she felt being the only female in a class of 50 students, saying: "It was distinctly tough. I ended up in the final two years of my course as the only female in the class, there were 49 men and me. There was a tradition among the students that when a female walked into a lecture theatre all the guys stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk. And I faced that for every class I walked into for my last two years."

Indeed, the road to becoming one of the most renowned women in science has been a rocky one for Jocelyn and one which she worries may come at a price.

"I'm one of the few women in science. I have pioneered that," she says. "One of the things I worry about is what that pioneering has done to me. I have had to fight quite hard most of the way through life."

When discussing the breakdown of her marriage, Jocelyn reveals that while her professional life has brought her numerous accolades and awards she rarely felt able to celebrate her success when at home.

"When I got prizes, my husband wasn't really as joyful as I thought he would be and I learned to play it more quietly when I got home having heard I got a prize," she says. "The marriage ended when Martin found another younger woman and went with her. It was quite a low time, money was tight. And I was very sad that it had broken up, I still loved him very much. It is, of course, lonelier being a single person."

She also talks about her faith in God and also her belief in extra-terrestrial life, saying: " One of the tenants of Quakerism is that you should be open to new light, new ideas.

"In both Quakerism and science you must be completely ready to revise what you hold to be the truth; you always hold things provisionally, and you are always open to revising them.

"The universe is very big - there's about 100,000 million galaxies in the universe so that means an awful lot of stars. And some of them, I'm pretty certain, will have planets, where there was life, is life or maybe will be life. I don't believe we're alone."

Once the key interview was complete and we got to know more about Jocelyn, we knew we had something really strong to build around. We now had a number of challenges. We had to find a way to make Jocelyn's science accessible. To this end we commissioned a series of graphics to explain how pulsars are formed.

We also had to visualise the actual discovery of pulsars. We had access to terrific archive from the period and we also filmed a reconstruction of the key events. This forms a very compelling part of the narrative and the story unfolds in dramatic fashion.

And we had to ensure that we were fair to other people connected to Jocelyn's story. On this point, we secured an interview with Professor Anthony Hewish, Jocelyn's supervisor at Cambridge and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars, which many believe Jocelyn should have been co-awarded. Prof Hewish, now in his 80s, reflects on that time and offers his view of Jocelyn's role in the discovery.

Two sides

"You know, in the popular mind, she is the key person in the discovery of pulsars," he says. "I'm totally fed up with it ¿ this stupid business that Jocelyn did all the work and I got all the credit, I get fed up with that comment because its just blarney, I mean it's just totally wrong.

"If she's disgruntled about the Nobel, well that's too bad quite honestly. It's a bit like an analogy I make - who discovered America? Was it Columbus or was it the lookout? Her contribution was very useful, but it wasn't creative. And I don't think you do get the Nobel prize for that".

Viewers will decide for themselves whether Jocelyn should have shared in the Nobel. At the programme's end, Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn meet up at the radio telescope site in Cambridge where they had made their discovery decades before. This coming together is clearly awkward for both parties, but they willingly agreed to meet and spend some time recalling their work.

As executive producer my biggest job is to mak e sure I put the right people in place to deliver. We had a wonderful team working on Northern Star, but director Niamh Sammon deserves most plaudits, not just for telling the story in such a compelling way but also for bringing so much out of Jocelyn. And, of course, Jocelyn is the real star.

Northern Star is on BBC ONE Northern Ireland tonight at 10.45pm. Northern Star is an Independent Pictures production for BBC NI

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