Pulsar Stars were discovered in 1967 by the Quaker Jocelyn Bell when she was a graduate student at Cambridge University.
The subsequent paper which produced the findings was published under the names of five more senior scientists who supervised Bell’s work. As a result, she was excluded from the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. However, Bell would later gain recognition in her own right as a pioneering scientist championing women in the sciences.
Bell was born in Northern Ireland and as a child she went to The Mount School, a Quaker girls’ boarding school in York. There she impressed her physics teacher, Mr Tillott, and recalls his teaching saying:
“You do not have to learn lots and lots … of facts; you just learn a few key things, and … then you can apply and build and develop from those … He was a really good teacher and showed me, actually, how easy physics was.”
Years later when she was at Cambridge, in July 1967, she detected a bit of ‘scruff’ on her chart-recorder papers as she was tracking stars. At first, it was thought the ‘scruff’ was simply an error in the data but when the data was proven correct the ‘scruff’ was jokingly given the name LGM-1, the LGM standing for Little Green Men.
Soon, after Bell carried out further observations, it was realized that what she had discovered wasn’t alien life forms but radio pulsars, stars that pulse out light. This would prove to be one astronomy’s greatest finds of the 20th century as the timing of the pulses would allow far more accurate measurements of time and space to be observed.
Bell would continue to have an active career in science and teaching, both in the UK and the US. In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, with a prize of $3 million, for her discovery of radio pulsars. She donated all of the money to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.
Inadvertently she also entered into popular culture with her graph of pulsar waves, which was published in the Cambridge Encyclopedia. The British rock band Joy Division included the image in a folder of reference material for their 1979 album Unknown Pleasures and it was used as the front cover. The album would become a best-selling classic and the striking image became known the world over.
Quakers and Science
In 2013 Bell gave a lecture entitled A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious? The lecture addresses the often perceived friction between science and religion. Throughout their history Quakers have held ‘science’ as one way of finding the truth and experimenting is a key part of the faith, so many early Friends found themselves observing the processes of the natural world and recording their findings. This was at a time when science was in its infancy and many Quakers involved themselves in botany. As the branches of science grew over the centuries so did the diversity in which Friends contributed to the field. Notable scientists include the following:
Thomas Hodgkin (1798 – 1866) a British physician, considered one of the most prominent pathologists of his time and a pioneer in preventive medicine. He is now best known for the first account of Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphoma and blood disease, in 1832.
Ann Preston (1813 – 1872) an American physician, activist, and educator. Preston was the first woman dean of a medical school, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which was the first medical school in the world to admit women exclusively
Physics and Chemistry
John Dalton (1766 – 1844), a British chemist, physicist, and meteorologist. He is best known for introducing the atomic theory into chemistry, and for his research into colour blindness, sometimes referred to as Daltonism in his honour.
John Gummere (1784 – 1845), an American astronomer and one of the founders of Haverford College in Pennsylvania who built its first observatory in 1834.
Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 – 1971), a British crystallographer who made a landmark discovery using x-rays on crystals. Lonsdale achieved several firsts in science including including being one of the first two women elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1945, first woman tenured professor at University College London, first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography, and first woman president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
George Francis Rayner Ellis (born 11 August 1939) a South African scientist who co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with University of Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking.
William Phillips (1775 – 1828), a British mineralogist and geologist who was one of the founders of the Geological Society of London in 1807. His Outlines of Mineralogy and Geology (1815) and Elementary Introduction to the Knowledge of Mineralogy (1816) became standard textbooks.
Robert Were Fox (26 April 1789 – 25 July 1877), a British geologist, natural philosopher and inventor. He is known mainly for his work on the temperature of the earth and his construction of a compass to measure the magnetic dip at sea.
Featured image from scientificamerican.com