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I’ve been reading Jim Al-Khalili’s interview with Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Bell Burnell, famously, found the first evidence of what we now know as pulsars: “It was a major scientific breakthrough, for which her male supervisor and head of her department jointly won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974.”

So, why?

Might a comparison with Brian Josephson be illuminating? Josephson got the Nobel Prize in 1973, the year before the pulsar prize, also for work that he had done as a PhD student at Cambridge. Both discussed their unexpected results extensively with their supervisors and other colleagues. But Josephson was a Cambridge insider with all the assurance that goes with that – and then stayed at Cambridge, apart from a very brief spell at Illinois, well networked in. He was also working in a field of physics where sole authored papers were more the norm. Bell Burnell was an outsider, by her own admission not assured, and went off to other places, working in a field where collaboration was the norm (and having chosen the field partly for that reason, reading between the lines). Had she been an assured insider she might have made sure that her name was first on that paper. Had she stayed in Cambridge, still working with the team, her presence would have reinforced memory of her contribution.

Further, Josephson discovered a mathematical result, that then went looking for a physical interpretation and experimental confirmation. Bell Burnell made an experimental discovery that went looking for a theoretical explanation. Might there be an element of theory being more highly regarded here?

So, not a simple case of ignoring her because she was a PhD student, or because she was a woman – though both undoubtedly contributed. Much more complex interactions at work. If Bell Burnell’s behaviour patterns and career path seem typically female – is she playing a different game by different rules? From her viewpoint it’s not even clear that the question of why she got passed over is an interesting question.

Also relevant:
(Philip Anderson’s account of the discovery of the Josephson effect).

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