Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell: ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ (video)

19 Jun 2015

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell speaking at Inspirefest 2015. Image via Conor McCabe Photography

Despite making one of the biggest astronomical discoveries of all time with her confirmation of the existence of pulsating stars (pulsars), Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell had to regularly fight prejudice for being a young, female scientist.

Giving the final address at Inspirefest 2015 , the world-renowned astrophysicist recalled her early days growing up as a young girl who knew from the beginning that she wanted to spend her life’s work analysing the stars that surround our planet.

Compared with today, however, the challenges that faced her by even thinking of such a career would make the hardest-willed person struggle to rise above the misjudged perception that science wasn’t for women.

Describing her childhood in Northern Ireland, Dame Bell Burnell realised the challenges ahead when she entered secondary school with excitement at the thoughts of new challenges to learn, but was then blocked from the beginning with boys sent to the science labs, while women were expected to do home economics.

“I don’t think Co Armagh was alone in this 60 years ago, I suspect that might have happened in many other counties in Ireland,” she said.

Teaching her school a lesson

The first sign that she felt that she could show men what her and many other girls and women were capable of came after she went into the first science class, which featured only three girls, who were kept at the top of the class to be closely monitored.

“We did physics that first term and I came top of the class, beating all the other kids. I would have loved to think the school learned something from that,” she said to applause from the attending crowd at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin.

She began her university education in the University of Glasgow, where from the beginning she faced issues on a daily basis of institutional sexism from her male peers as she was the only female.

Recounting her experiences, she said: “It was tradition in the university that when a woman entered the lecture theatre, all the guys would whistle, stamp and cat-call and make as much noise as they could. I had to face that on my own for two years.”

How a ‘scruff’ made her a star

But again she continued, and went on to Cambridge to study for her PhD, where she became heavily invested in the development of a radio space telescope to study the furthest reaches of space, that being her dream as a child, under the supervision of Antony Hewish.

Staying up all hours analysing reams of charts, she found what she describes as a “scruff” on one of these charts, which after much debate with Hewish and other Cambridge peers, was eventually ruled out as potential sign of intelligent life, despite being given the name ‘Little Green Man 1’ (LGM-1).

She had, as we now know, discovered what became known as a pulsar (pulsating radio star) and would briefly become a media sensation with such significant scientific news being announced.

However, she quickly found that those in the media, even among the most respected news outlets who cover astronomy, were quick to dismiss her involvement in its discovery.

How many boyfriends do you have? Is your hair blonde or brunette? She was even asked whether she could open the top buttons of her blouse. “I felt like a piece of meat,” she said.

Despite her credibility as an accomplished scientist being challenged, she still had to hold her tongue. “They didn’t know how to handle a young, female scientist. I would have loved to turn a sharp tongue on them but couldn’t. I needed good references and support from the powerful people and I can’t afford to say what I think to a journalist.”

Now over 70 years of age, Dame Bell Burnell says her career is still going strong and on a final note for the attending audience, offered the advice of making the best of what opportunities are given.

In the final slide of her presentation, she showed what arguably defines her decades of life fighting for her right to be a leading astrophysicist with a quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which said: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

This story was originally published on 18 June 2015 at 6.43pm. It has since been updated with a video report.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic