Professor Bell Burnell came across the discovery of the first radio pulsars while working as a graduate student in radio astronomy in Cambridge, opening up a new branch of astrophysics. Louis and Rosie spoke to Jocelyn over Zoom about her work, women in science and the future of physics.
Rosie: We wanted to ask you, firstly, what drew you towards astronomy as a subject in your studies and growing up? Particularly radio astronomy, and how you fell in love with the subject.
Jocelyn: I identified astronomy quite early on as something I’d like to do. I must have been in about the third or fourth year of secondary school, and it was clear I was good at physics, and I was wondering what kind of physics I might do ultimately. You can do a physics degree at university, but it opens many many doors, and I wasn’t quite sure what way I would end up going. My father brought home some astronomy books from the public library. At school we were doing motion in a circle in physics classes, and in one of these books I was reading about these vast galaxies, whole systems of stars that rotate. I could see immediately that the physics we were doing in school could be applied to that, so I thought – right! I’ll be an astronomer. And then somebody pointed out to me that to be an astronomer you do it at night, and you have to be good at staying up late. And I knew I wasn’t – I wasn’t then, I am not now. I have difficulty keeping awake after about 11 o’clock at night. So, I thought – oh, I can’t be an astronomer. And then I got to hear of new kinds of astronomy being done at other wavelengths. Radio astronomy developed following the second world war, and x-ray astronomy developed following the second world war. X-ray astronomy you do from a satellite. It was a bit dicey, the satellite launches at that stage, you know, it was all a bit new, and they didn’t always work. So, I thought – right, maybe radio astronomy is a safer bet. So, by the time I left school I had decided I wanted to be a radio astronomer, ultimately.
Louis: I guess onto the question that follows: How did you discover pulsars, and what did it feel like as a PhD student making such an incredible discovery?
Jocelyn: Just give you a little bit more biographical background, you’ll have already noticed from my accent that I’m not southern English. I started life in Northern Ireland, I had most of my secondary education in York, I did my first degree in Glasgow, these are all in the north and west of the country. Down south was different, maybe dangerous? And so I was distinctly surprised I had gotten a place in Cambridge, and when I got to Cambridge I was even more surprised I had gotten a place at Cambridge. At that time there were very few women in Cambridge, there were very few women’s colleges, and colleges didn’t go co-ed for many many more years. There were probably about ten men to every woman in Cambridge in the student body. We were very much a minority. And in addition to being a minority I felt a bit like an uncouth heathen coming from the North and West of the country. Most other people came from schools like you do with proper accents who were used to life in southern England and in Cambridge. At that time the young men that were there were extremely confident, absolutely convinced of their right to be in Cambridge and nothing would alter that frame of mind. And so I arrived and I thought “I don’t fit in here, I’m not clever enough, I think they’ve made a mistake admitting me”. This still happens today in places like Oxford and Cambridge, and if you’re not careful a student has said “I better leave, before they throw me out” and they’ve gone home by the end of the first week of the first term of the first year. This is called imposter syndrome. We didn’t have it identified or named back then, but that’s what it is, and that’s what I was feeling. But I’d had quite a fight to get where I’d got and I had decided I wasn’t walking out, but I was pretty certain they’d throw me out at some stage. My policy was to work as hard as I could until they threw me out, and then I wouldn’t have a guilty conscience because I’d know I’d done my best. So I worked extremely hard and very very thoroughly and that’s how I spotted the tiny anomaly that turned out to be the pulsars.
Louis: In your opinion, is the purpose of physics to make discoveries that will have practical purposes in the future, or to make discoveries for the sake of discovering more about the universe?
Jocelyn: I think the main purpose of research is to increase our body of knowledge so that hopefully we understand better what’s going on. We don’t always, because sometimes the things we discover throw the old theories out the window. But that’s often the way progress is made.
Louis: And what do you think the role of philosophy in physics is, if any, or even is there a difference between them?
Jocelyn: I know that physics is sometimes called natural philosophy. I don’t like it as a name as philosophy is not something I get on with at all well. My brain just doesn’t work that way, so I stick to physics – none of this natural philosophy.
Rosie: Related to current discoveries and new discoveries, Louis and I both recently watched a lecture by Professor Victoria Kaspi about her work on Fast Radio Bursts – discovering more about them and their possible origins, which is so exciting. We were wondering, what are your thoughts on FRBs and all these new discoveries?
Jocelyn: FRBs are something that I’ve been following because they were initially discovered by people studying pulsars. They are amazing and astounding and so far don’t have an explanation. I know Vicky is quite keen to identify them with a kind of star she studies called magnetars, but I’m not sure. I have an open mind still as to what they are, as I think quite a lot of people do. Meanwhile, we’re finding more of them and we’re getting more information on them and someday it will make sense.
Rosie: I think we both look forward to that day as well.
Jocelyn: You might be able to join in! You never know!
Rosie: Hopefully, yes! You sort of mentioned it already, being one of the only women at Cambridge. I’m really curious as to what your experiences and challenges have been throughout your childhood and then further study, in a generation where there’s an even more male stereotype, especially in the realms of Physics. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced regarding that and how have you persisted, been determined, and overcome those?
Jocelyn: Challenges started quite early, born in Northern Ireland with quite a lot of southern Irish people around as well. Certainly in southern Ireland, boys count and girls don’t, and I was the eldest in the family followed by a brother. So quite early on my nose got put out of joint, so to speak. The next issue I was aware of was at the age of the 11+, you’ve heard of the 11+ exam? In some parts of the country, not just Northern Ireland, there was a higher pass mark for girls than for boys. The snag is that at age eleven or twelve girls tend to have matured a bit more than boys. They are brighter, and too many girls were passing the 11+. “Everybody knew” that girls were only going to get married and be stay at home wives and mothers. It was the boys who would be the wage earners going out to work and it was the boys who needed secondary education, really. If you’re going to be a wife and mother, you don’t need that much education. So they set a higher pass mark for the girls in order to prevent too many girls passing the 11+. This continued in Northern Ireland till about 1988 I think, Kent was another area that did it. I think they stopped rather soon after, but there were places where there was a higher pass mark for girls so, you know, you didn’t always feel very wanted. My parents fought for me to move into the grammar school stream. On the Wednesday of the first week of the first term of the first year in grammar school a message went round the class that that afternoon, boys went to a certain place and girls went to another. And I thought, this is for sport. It wasn’t. They sent the boys to the science lab and the girls to the domestic science room. No discussion, no choice because everybody knew that girls were only going to get married and be housewives and mothers and they needed to learn how to cook and to sew and how to make beds and so on. I was disappointed with that because my parents had said I’d get to do science at secondary school, and I tried protesting to the domestic science teacher but that did not achieve what I wanted. When I told my parents that evening, they hit the roof – as did the local GP, the local doctor who had a daughter in my class, as did one other set of parents and the next time the science class met, there were three girls and all the boys. None of the boys wanted to switch to domestic science. We did physics that first term and I came top of the class, so I felt the move was justified.
Louis: And so do you think diversity and equality in science, and particularly physics, has improved since the start of your career?
Jocelyn: Yes, it has improved, but it still has a long way to go. It’s something, for instance, we’re working quite hard on in Oxford. There still is an image out there, I think, that physics is hard, and why would a girl bother. So bodies like the Institute of Physics are trying to counter these images. There’s now a girl guide badge called ‘I am a Physicist’ which has turned out to be very popular, which is good.
Louis: Obviously you were involved in AthenaSWAN. What do you think are the next steps – I mean, Oxford undergraduate physics is the second most unequal degree in terms of gender. So what do you think the next steps are in terms of moving forward to improve equality?
Jocelyn: The AthenaSWAN scheme has been driving things a lot, and whilst research funders require departments to hold AthenaSWAN, there’s been considerable pressure to improve your AthenaSWAN standing year on year. Some research funders are beginning to relax that, partly because AthenaSWAN has had other things added to it, and it has become really quite cumbersome. But there still is considerable pressure on university departments, not I think places of work, but certainly university departments, to be mindful of the gender balance and there’s quite a lot of work going into that. And there are some interesting initiatives like the conference for undergraduate women in physics, which is an all women physics undergraduate conference which happens each year. Usually for about a hundred students, which of course is not all the women studying physics. But that has proved to be immensely encouraging and reassuring for the girls, the young women who have decided they want to do physics.
Rosie: Do you think that maybe even it starts earlier, in secondary school time? I know, for example, I am one of three girls in a class of fifteen boys in my physics class, and I know that it’s a lot worse of a situation, proportionally, in other schools. How do you think we can encourage more girls to take physics – to take sciences and to take physics after GCSEs, and to keep it going and get to undergraduate level?
Jocelyn: I think it starts very very early. There is a website you might be interested in called ‘Let Toys be Toys’. They’ve looked at the toys that are deemed appropriate for boys and are deemed appropriate for girls, they’ve looked at the advertising for toys for boys and toys for girls. It’s starkly different. The advertising of girls’ toys is all about pretty and pink, and fairly passive to be honest, and the boys advertising is much more adventurous and outgoing. So I think that we actually gender people very very early and in a sense we over-gender them, and I think that’s one of the main reasons society does not perceive science as being for girls.
Rosie: I think also, from my perspective, it comes down to our teenage age, to a bit of a confidence thing. As in, at our age, a lot of boys are more boisterous and outgoing and less afraid to get something wrong in class. I only moved to Westminster, which is a co-ed 6th form, this year – so this is my first year in a co-ed school. The first few weeks you sort of notice that the boys aren’t afraid to put up their hands, say something and get it wrong. As a girl I sort of felt, at first, a bit more timid – I didn’t want to say something if I got it wrong, especially in a subject as hard as physics.
Jocelyn: And if the girls are quieter, that’ll probably encourage the boys to be less quiet – even more less quiet! Yes. That feeling that you don’t want to get things wrong, I think that’s part of the conditioning of females in our society, whereas boys are encouraged to be more outgoing and braver and take more risks. So I think it’s partly the way we bring up boys and bring up girls in general.
Louis: And do you think it’s something specific about physics because something like biochemistry is far more equal? What do you think it is about physics, particularly?
Jocelyn: I think, amongst the sciences, physics and engineering have got male images. Chemistry is perhaps neutral, and life science is definitely a female thing. And I’m not quite sure where maths sits in all that, but that’s been a pattern for a very long time – in this country, at least. I don’t know if it’s true in other countries. But you can imagine, you know, biology, little furry animals, taking care of animals, it’s almost gendered already, isn’t it?
Rosie: Maybe also the fact that to do medicine at university it used to be necessary to do all three sciences. And now that’s not the case, so maybe girls who could have taken all three sciences and then maybe fallen in love with physics have just gone straight down the medicine path. There are barely any girls doing A level physics.
Jocelyn: Yes. At one point in my career, I was a dean of a science faculty and there was a medical sciences department. My very first appointment after starting the job was with the head of the medical sciences. And he came into my office and said “I’m very worried about the future of medicine”. And I thought, okay, he’s going to ask for some money. That’s probably why he’s here. He went on: “now that the majority of undergraduates are female”.
Rosie: And he wasn’t joking?!
Jocelyn: No! No no, and that’s not so long ago I can tell you! I would think he’s probably retired by now, so maybe some of the younger members of his department are a bit more enlightened.
Rosie: I would hope so, by now! What advice would you give to girls – and students in general, like Louis and I, as young aspiring physicists?
Jocelyn: I’d say if you’re interested in the subject – go for it! Just make sure you’ve got good maths as well because you can’t do physics without maths. But if your maths is also good, I’d say go for it. It’s a subject that I think is about to boom. There are major unknowns in physics at the moment. A number of them are driven by astrophysics, I have to say, but there are major unknowns. So it could be very very exciting for your generation.
Louis: One more question: what are you currently working on? I know we’ve spoken about fast radio bursts, but what excites you the most at the moment?
Jocelyn: Fast radio bursts is definitely one of them. That’s why I know Vicky Kaspi and I know Vicky’s pitch on all this. That’s definitely one of the most exciting things going on. In astronomy in general, things are changing quite fast. We are discovering, and going to discover, millions of exoplanets – planets around other stars. The number is going up very very fast. If you look up to the night sky you should say to yourself there are as many planets up there as there are stars. And in fact, there are probably about ten times more planets up there than stars. Lots and lots of planets. Interesting variety, interesting questions about why there is that combination of planets around that star, and a different combination of planets around another star, for example. And the perennial question – are any of them in a habitable zone? The right distance from their sun that there could be liquid water, which is considered one of the first criteria for a planet being able to support life. Huge areas there. Huge things, also, on the interface with particle physics and theoretical physics, so lots going on. As they say, watch this space.
Louis: On that, what did you think about the recent supposed evidence against the standard model from LHCB with the beauty quark decay?
Jocelyn: Yeah, we’ll see. I’m always a little bit cautious, because there’s a great temptation to make a big flashy announcement when you think you’ve got something. And then you have to go quiet, because you discover there’s a mistake in your work or it wasn’t as significant as y9ou think it is and so on. But there’s room for plenty of things to break through, undoubtedly. The way the subject is going, I imagine there’ll be a number of very interesting breakthroughs in your lifetime.
Louis: So a good time to get into physics!
Jocelyn: I think so, yes. I’d do some astrophysics along with it, though! Not biased!
Rosie: I had one more question. I went down a research rabbit hole on the concept of nuclear pasta as a theory for what could be in the inner core of neutron stars. What are your thoughts? I know there are a lot of theories.
Jocelyn: I think, probably, there will be these different patterns that we name after different styles of pasta. The physics is very extreme, of course, inside a neutron star. The density is enormous, and there’s a whopping great magnetic field just to make life more complicated. I suspect some progress will be made when the gravitational wave astronomers find some more neutron star mergers. The two stars spiral together and finally merge, and if we can understand exactly what happens in that merger, we will advance the physics a huge amount, including the insides of these two neutron stars that merged. So watch gravitational radiation as well – that’s another exciting area.