Education

British scientist snubbed of Nobel Prize encourages diversity in Coe College visit

'They find it harder to get in,' Jocelyn Bell Burnell said of women seeking STEM degrees

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a world-renowned astrophysicist, answers a question during an interview in the Coe College Clark Alumni House in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a world-renowned astrophysicist, answers a question during an interview in the Coe College Clark Alumni House in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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The number of women graduating with science, technology, engineering or math degrees from public universities in Iowa has spiked in recent years, making world-renowned astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s message delivered at Coe College on Tuesday especially relevant for this region.

“It’s now very well established that diversity’s good in every field,” Burnell told The Gazette before taking the stage on the Cedar Rapids college Tuesday evening. “A company or a business that’s diverse is more robust and more flexible and more successful than a business that’s less diverse.”

Burnell, who is 75 and lives in Britain, knows firsthand the experience of being an underrepresented woman in an astrophysics field dominated by men, having worked as a postgraduate student in 1967 at the University of Cambridge in England. It was there she noticed something strange in a radio telescope she helped build and was trying to debug.

“Nobody recognized students — only the top men,” she said. “It was just the way it was.”

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“I was the first person to use it, having got it built, and stumbled over a very small piece of the record that didn’t seem to make sense,” Burnell said. “We had the data coming out on long, long rolls of paper chart, and there was an anomaly at the level of 10 parts of a million, which I happened to notice.”

It went “blip, blip, blip,” Burnell recalled, and then it disappeared for about a month.

“That was frustrating,” she said.

“It was a bit elusive to put it mildly, but when I finally got it pinned down, it turned out to be a string of pulses,” Burnell said.

She and her fellow researchers spent a long time trying to explain it away.

“We firmly believed no such thing could exist as a star,” she said. “But we couldn’t explain it away, and then I found a second and a third and a fourth. And it really had to be some new kind of star.”

It’s what now is known as a pulsar, a compact rotating star that emits beams of radiation. The discovery has been heralded as “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century,” recognized with the Nobel Prize in physics in 1974.

But Burnell was left out of that recognition, as it instead went to her co-author and graduate professor Antony Hewish. That was standard protocol, and Burnell said she actually was thrilled for the first astronomy Nobel Prize under the physics umbrella.

“Nobody recognized students — only the top men,” she said. “It was just the way it was.”

That 1974 award set a new precedent for astronomy recognition, and about 20 awards since have gone to astronomers.

“It really was an important precedent,” she said.

And recognition didn’t entirely elude her, as last year Burnell received a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics — also one of the most prestigious awards within the field of physics. She promptly donated the entire award to a charity in the United Kingdom aimed at supporting physics graduate students from underrepresented groups.

That still includes women, she said. When asked why, Burnell told The Gazette, “They find it harder to get in.”

That, she hopes, is where her scholarships will come in — as in the next academic year they’ll become available to any student from an underrepresented group who wants to do research in physics at a British or Irish university.

In Iowa, men still hold most of the STEM degrees, according to a recent Iowa College Aid report. They represent about 82 percent of STEM degrees from community colleges, and about 69 percent from public universities.

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But, according to the report, women are gaining. The number who graduated from regent universities with STEM degrees increased 14 percent from 2011-12 to 2014-15.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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