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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Jocelyn Bell Burnell by David DeVorkin on 2000 May 21,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This is a biographical history starting with Dr. Burnell's early life in Northern Ireland; schooling in England; growth of interests; decision to study astronomy and specialize in radio astronomy. The discussion continues with gender issues in her training, marriage and career, and the critical period during her graduate training where she worked with Tony Hewish in the construction of the 4.5 acre radio array and the work done with it takes special attention. Their discovery of pulsars is discussed in detail including her exclusion from the inner circle deliberating over the matter. Beyond her Cambridge years, the interview covers her many subsequent positions, taken in consequence of moves her husband was making in his career, the growth of public and popular recognition of her role in the discovery of pulsars. She discusses her subsequent research in gamma ray astronomy and her roles and responsibilities at Southhampton, the Mullard Space Science Centre, at Manchester and at the Open University.
I’d like to start biographically, and for that I have, as you suggested, looked at a number of the biographies of you on the web. There is quite a bit on you on the web.
Yes, there is.
I did find one from UCLA that has a good bio, a short one, and various other interviews with you.
Yes. You’ve probably covered most of the typical web material in that case.
That’s right. I’d like to first know something about where you were born and what your family life was like. Please talk a little bit about your father and your mother and your family background.
Well, I come from across the Atlantic. I was born in Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster, and I’m Scots Irish therefore. I’m the eldest of four children: a brother next after me and then two sisters. My father was an architect. Although I was born in 1943, which was in the middle of Hitler’s war, my father was actually farming at that point. There wasn’t much architecture and the family owned quite a bit of land, so he is shown on my birth certificate as a farmer.
So he actually identified himself as such.
On my birth certificate, yes.
Was that a political statement, emotional statement or just fact?
I think it was probably just fact. There wasn’t any architecture to do, and I expect, I guess that he got excusal from military service because there was land to be farmed. So he was farming at that point.
Your father’s full name?
George Philip Bell.
Okay. As an architect I take it he was college trained?
Yes. He had a university degree and professional recognition by the British architects. Yes, that’s right.
Did he return to architecture after the war?
Very much so, yes... and for the rest of his life as a practicing architect. So this was a glitch caused by the war basically. Yes.
Interesting. Was he still farming when you became aware of the world and aware of your existence?
Yes. No, I don’t really remember him farming, nor my mother driving tractors, which she did at that time as well. I don’t have direct memory of that.
So that’s not something you can say would be part of your early consciousness, farm life?
It was a small part, because there was a lot of land around the house. And although my father went back to architecture pretty promptly at the end of the war, the land was still being farmed, and I can remember helping with the haymaking and things like that. So it’s part of my background. It was a rural farming country background, albeit professional people in that kind of countryside.
I see. Did he work in a city setting though?
No, he had an office attached to the house, and the house was called “Solitude.”
The name of the house.
The name of the house, yes. We were not isolated by U.S. standards, but by British standards we were rural, out on our own.
What’s the age of the house? Is there anything about it?
Yes. The oldest bits of the house were 200 years old, and the house had been lived in by my father’s family for many, many years — a number of generations it had been the family home. There was another big house about a mile away where some other of the brothers of the family have lived, so there were two big houses in the area that were Bell family houses.
They were both Bell family.
I detect a certain amount of pride when you say the Bell family.
One thing that I was very proud of as a school child — and I’m not quite sure the word you use here where a rail track crosses a road? We call it a level crossing. Well, one of the crossings of the Belfast — Dublin railway line near us was known as Bell’s Row, because there was a row of houses owned by the Bell family at the crossing. So we have a level crossing named after the family.
In addition to your immediate family, how many Bells were around would you say?
They weren’t all Bells. There were lots of people around. It was a most unusual childhood. We had this very big house, and in addition to my mother and my father and myself, there was my father’s youngest brother and his new wife and a baby that came along subsequently, but not for another two or three years. There were one or two bachelors, and there were four or five, I guess, refugees from Germany — or refugees from Hitler. There were White Russians, Byelorussians; there were German Jews. And I don’t remember all their names or who they were, but I remember a houseful of adults in which I was the only child for a while, the only baby. So I think I had a good time. This was ‘43, ‘44, ‘45. I don’t remember how long they remained. I guess they departed singly, so to speak. But I do have early memories of an awful lot of adults around. It was a big household.
Okay. Who ran the house?
Well, my mother ran the house, but there were maids and people like that. There was staff in the house and the garden. We certainly, most of my childhood, had a cook and a maid and a nanny for the children. There were four of us ultimately. And one or two gardeners and a handyman-come-chauffeur. So there was quite a few staff around as well.
Was your father then, your family, regarded as some form of aristocracy or landed gentry at the time?
Yes. I think aristocracy is pitching it too high, but landed, yes.
Gentry. That’s much better, yes.
Okay. Then was college education and schooling considered part of your normal life? This was something expected?
Yes. We, all of us went to the local school, which was two or three miles away. We would bicycle to school. Until about the age of eleven, twelve, thirteen, and then we all were sent away to boarding school in England — in part because our parents wanted us to have some of our education out of Northern Ireland, which is a fairly narrow community, and even then wasn’t a very harmonious community. So yes, our education was important. My mother had missed out on higher education because at the time she was college age it was the Depression. The family was in linen, and the Depression was very bad for the linen trade, and so her parents decided to educate her younger brother and not her. So she was very keen that her three girls should have equal education to their brother. That was important to her.
What is your mother’s family maiden name and full name?
Right. Her maiden name was Kennedy. And her full name is Margaret Allison with two l’s, and of course she is now Bell.
What was home life like? You mentioned that you had a lot of servants around the house, or maids and cooks and that sort of thing, but was there a routine? Were there chores? Was there a role in life that you assumed?
Yes. We had I guess limited responsibility compared to some kids. We were living in a big house and each child had a bedroom of their own which was their own space, but they had to keep it tidy, clean. You could rearrange the furniture as you wished, but it had to be clean and tidy. And every so often there were crises when the maids left or the cooks left and we had a gap before the next one came in, and then the whole family would pitch in and help with the domestic whatever it was. I can also remember an event called “spring cleaning,” which was murder, where all the carpets got lifted, taken outside and beaten with beaters to get rid of the dust, and everything was washed down — all the woodwork, you know, everything was cleaned. It was a major exercise.
Was this something that you participated in?
No. Kept clear, and to begin with we didn’t have proper electricity. We generated our own electricity, and it was very limited. And if we put too many lights on in the house it all fused. So I can remember great carboys of acid, I suspect, being delivered for generating the electricity, and I can remember the lights going out every so often. But we did not have vacuum cleaners and we did not have electric irons, things like that.
That’s an interesting contrast. Did you have radio?
Oh, yes. Radio was very important. We didn’t get television until quite late, the late fifties, but we had radio, and I can remember listening to the Korean War news on the radio with my family and sensing the anxiety of the adults although not understanding it myself not understanding exactly what was going on. But that’s an early memory as well.
Something was definitely making them nervous.
What do you feel it was? Was it the bomb?
I think it was more — it was probably closer to home than that. It was memory of the carnage of the Second World War. Belfast got very badly bombed, and that was our main city, so it did come quite close.
What was intellectual life like? Let’s say, was there intellectual life? Were there books in the house? Did you speak of things at the dinner table? You mentioned the war, was that spoken of? But were other things spoken of as well that you recall?
I want to make a distinction between within the house and family and the word “outside.” The local school that we went to was not very good. I can remember one day we were reading a Greek fable, myth, and the teacher told us that the name of this woman in the fable was pronounced pur-si-fone instead of pur-sef-un-ee. It was that kind of level of education. I remember that because my mother picked it up when we came home and said what we’d been doing in school. And then there followed a discussion about how diplomatically to educate the teacher. And it was arranged that when I was doing my reading the next day I would say Persephone and then correct myself and say, “Oh no, sorry. You say its pur-si-fone.” So home was highly educated. My mother should have had university education but didn’t because of financial reasons, but she was perfectly capable of it. My father [was] intellectually always very alert, bringing home a tremendous range of books from the public library which I regularly flipped through to see if they were interesting. My father had a phenomenal general knowledge and took part in some of these general knowledge quizzes. There was one called Brain of Britain, and he was the finalist for Northern Ireland of Brain of Britain for several years, and he had that good a general knowledge.
Fascinating. Was this a radio program?
And did he have to travel someplace to be interviewed? And was this a big thing for the family?
He certainly will have gone to Belfast for the earlier rounds, and that would have been an hour’s car drive. Until airplanes came along, the way to get to London was to take an overnight steamer across the Irish Sea and then a long train journey down to London. But he began using airplanes quite early. I can remember the excitement of we all going to the airport to see dad off on an airplane probably to London. And that must have happened in fairly early fifties that he started using airplanes. So yes, one didn’t travel as much in those days.
Given that he was so high up in the Brain of Britain, was there any kind of intimidation in the family? Was he the brain in the family, or what?
No. There’s wasn’t intimidation, although our parents were obviously much more delighted when we did well at school and that was obviously valued by them. And if you hadn’t done well it was going to be less enjoyable going home after school. They really saw education as being important, and important that we were stimulated and reached whatever level we could reach; that we reached our potential academically.
Did they have specific expectations?
I don’t know that they had thought it through. Probably particularly not for the girls. I became conscious in later life that I had been given an education that enabled me to do all kinds of jobs, but often jobs weren’t open to me. You know, so in that sense I think they hadn’t thought it through and they hadn’t thought what young women do when they have a university education and they get married and have children. It’s issues just like that where I think they hadn’t seen it through, but perhaps it’s asking too much that they should have.
Of that generation, certainly. But I’m curious as to how much gender specificity there was in your family between you, the three sisters, and the brother. Were you definitely on different tracks?
Depends who you’re talking of. As far as our parents were concerned, no, we were not; we were equal. But I mentioned maids and cooks and nannies. They were almost invariably Southern Irish Roman Catholics, and they came out of a society that was very strongly patriarchal. And one of the incidents from my early life is my brother came along eighteen months after me, and the nanny would go out with the baby in the pram and me togging along beside and go meet other nannies, you know, other young women like them, and they would say, “Isn’t it great that Mrs. Bell has a son now?” in my hearing. And I don’t quite know what happened, but somehow or other I was taken to the family doctor and the family doctor spotted this and told my parents what was going on.
And what did they do about it?
They say, “Very obviously, we value little girls as much as little boys.” And I can remember that, because it didn’t quite seem to ring true, or it didn’t seem to me to be the whole story is perhaps a fairer way of saying it. You know, I think my brain was already saying, “Well, you may say that, but the nanny says differently,” you know.
Did you ever envy boys?
Yes, frequently in my life.
We can talk about that. Let me ask you a little bit more about your religious background and training.
I was born and brought up Quaker and still am active in Quakers, probably even very active in Quakers. The meeting, the congregation that we had where we lived in Northern Ireland was fairly limited and tending to evangelical, which my parents were not comfortable with, and we sensed this as children of course. Became much more comfortable with the English version of Quakerism that we met when we went away to boarding school in England. It’s just part of the social phenomenon of Northern Ireland. It seems to be for every denomination — not just the Quakers, but for every denomination, the Northern Ireland version is a bit more fundamentalist, a bit more take the Bible literally, a bit more evangelical, a bit less educated. And Quakers were just the same.
Yes. But as a Scots Irish, you were not a Scots-Presbyterian.
No, no. My father’s family had been Quaker quite a few generations previously. They came from Scotland in 1640, which is about the same time as Quakerism started. My mother’s family was not Quaker, but she converted on marriage. She felt that was the proper thing to do, which is interesting. And I could sense a different understanding of Quakerism between her and my father in the sense that he [had] long, far back Quaker roots and had sort of absorbed a lot, and she had only met it as an adult.
And what was her family’s religious background?
The immediate past had been Unitarian, but I don’t know further back than that.
Okay. Going back to your early life, you started going to school—
Do you recall when it was that you first started realizing that boys had a better shake of it in this world?
I think the first instance was when my brother was born and the reactions of the Irish staff in the house. That was the first sense of it. I probably didn’t meet it again until college level, I suspect. No, I can remember one incident. This gets a little complicated, so bear with me while I explain it. In Britain in those days kids sat at exam at age eleven, and this exam was supposed to determine — it was called the 11+ (“eleven plus”) which was the age you sat it at.
This exam was supposed to determine whether you were academic or non-academic, and they segregated kids into two streams, with very little cross currents thereafter. And if you passed this exam you went to a school where you did academic subjects; if you failed this exam you went to a school where you were taught carpentry and metalwork if you were a boy, and secretarial skills and cookery if you were a girl. And I failed this exam at the age of eleven. My parents had already decided to send me away to this boarding school in England, and that would happen in about two years’ time. And for the intervening two years they somehow wangled it that I went in with the academic stream and had the sort of full academic education for those two years.
How did you fail it? Have you thought about that in your life?
Yes. I think I can see what was going on, because my brother and the next sister also failed it. My parents deliberately chose not to send us to schools that crammed you for that exam. They sent us to a much smaller school where they thought the education might be broader. I’m not sure it was, because the standard of education — well, it may have been broader, but it wasn’t to a good standard. So, I don’t know. So basically I think we weren’t very well prepared for it. We were probably also late developers, and I think it’s something to do with the fact also that they tested you on English, math and what they called intelligence. They gave you a number of shapes and said, “Which two are the same?” You know, I can’t think of another word for it, but you’ve maybe come across those kinds of tests. And fairly simple numerical tests — you know, 1, 3, 5, and 7, what’s the next number kind of thing. They didn’t do any science. And I’ll come back to that in just a moment. Now I can remember the first day of those intervening two years where I was with kids that had passed the exam. Word went ‘round that at two o’clock in the afternoon all the girls were to go to the domestic science room and all the boys were to go to the science lab. And I was a bit puzzled by this, but I went along in case it was some kind of special announcement or something. And it turned out that there was an assumption that all the girls, even these academic ones, would take domestic science: cookery and needlework.
That’s what domestic science is.
Yes. While the boys were doing physics, chemistry, biology. And I suspected this was wrong, so after about twenty minutes in this first domestic science class I said to the teacher, “I think I’m in the wrong place.” And so did two other girls, and three of us moved to the science class. But there were presumptions about our roles in society.
Sure. But no resistance from the teacher?
Not once we’d had the courage to challenge it, no. If we hadn’t had the courage, it might have taken a week or two to get it sorted out. So I went to the science, and that first term we were doing astronomy and physics. And in the exam at Christmastime I came top of the class, in spite of the fact that I was the one who had failed this 11+.
So you were in a state school, and there was the two-year interval before you were going to go off to boarding school.
That’s right, yes.
And you took astronomy at that time.
They taught a little bit of astronomy as part of a combined science course that we did in the first year, maybe the first two years. So it started with astronomy, physics; it moved on to chemistry; it moved on to botany, as far as I can remember. And I don’t recall what we did in the second year.
What access did you have to educational materials that would be astronomy or physics or science related in the school? What facilities were available to you?
I don’t remember a lot in the school other than the textbook that we would have been issued with for that particular course. There probably was a school library, but I don’t remember a lot about it. My parents however were frequently buying us books, and particularly when my parents realized that I might have a scientific bent, having come top of this science exam, if I expressed an interest in a book about science it would come along pretty quickly.
So again there was nothing but encouragement.
Yes, indeed. Absolutely.
Was this the same for your sisters and brother?
Yes, I think so, as far as I can see, yes.
While we’re thinking about it, even though chronologically it’s out of step here, what did your sisters and brothers end up doing in their lives?
Right. The brother after me became a mechanical engineer. He went through school, college, and became a qualified mechanical engineer. He has actually worked with water quite a lot. He built marinas for boats and bridges and he’s currently concerned with water-borne pollution in Northern Ireland. The next sister was actually more on the art side, and she’s the only one who was on the art side. She did a degree in sociology and has held various management and training positions in industry and is currently working in some kind of consultancy position supporting new startup businesses, giving general management advice. The third sister was also technical. She did a degree in town-planning, I think it was, but then went into operational research and now, well, for many, many years has worked for computer companies, quite often on the training side, but definitely as a computer expert.
All professionals then.
Yes. And all of us went through college, I should have said, as well. All of us are graduates. Though I have a Ph.D. and my youngest sister has a master’s degree. The other two have bachelor’s degrees.
Back to this scoring the highest in astronomy, tell me a little bit about what your impressions are of how this happened.
I just took to the subject. It was rather more physics than astronomy, I have to say. It was just a little bit about the constellations but you might be interested to know, I got 97% on that exam and the one thing I got wrong was the speed of light. They asked us what was the speed of light and I wrote down 186,000 miles per second, which is correct. And for the first time in my life, looked at that number and thought, ‘That’s very big. That can’t be right.’ Scored out ‘seconds’ and wrote ‘hours.’
Wonderful. So that’s the first time you realized just how big that number was. What was it that triggered that; that you saw something that just was so counter-intuitive?
I guess what I’m saying is, even in that first exam I had learnt to check that my answers seemed sensible, that where I came up with a numerical value, that it was reasonable, whatever reasonable means.
Oh this wasn’t a memory thing, you had to calculate it?
No, it was a memory thing, but one can remember numbers wrongly or units wrongly so I think I had already built in some kind of checking system, and it was just unfortunate that I had never sort of thought about that number before this exam.
Let’s talk about that checking system, very interesting. Where do you think it came from?
My father. My father would frequently lead us along a line of questioning, a bit the way you sometimes do with a grad student. So if that’s true then is it true that such and such, and if that’s true, is it also true that, something else. And then you come to a sort of halt and you say, “Right, now does that seem sensible? Does that seem plausible?” And I think my father had probably first been the one to ask us that question and so we had learned to ask it of ourselves.
About everything you do?
Certainly about quantitative things. I don’t remember it applying in moral or ethical areas, but in scientific areas, yes.
But considering morals, ethics, and religion — did the Bible have to make sense to you, or as a Quaker, and obviously a liberal one, did it just read as a good story? Did you have any self-checking there?
I think I was probably a bit confused when I was young because I was getting one message from the local Quaker meeting and a different message from my parents. With hindsight, I can now see that Quakerism is in a slightly different position from many other denominations, and if you don’t mind we will go into theology just for a moment or two. Any faith, any church, any denomination gets its authority from several possible roots. One is the holy writings, the Bible, the Koran, what have you. The other is the church’s history and tradition and often its founder. And the third one is what is called “Continuing Revelation.” God speaking to contemporary people, and Quakerism is unusual in that it puts very great emphasis on that third one, contemporary revelation and sits a lot lighter to the history and traditions and the holy writings and I actually think that’s why there are so many scientists in Quakerism, because you are liberated from having to believe word-for-word what the book of Genesis says or word-for-word what your founding fathers said. You take responsibility on your own shoulders for developing an understanding of God and God’s will for this world and God’s will for you and so on. And this developing and understanding is actually very like what a research scientist does. You make a picture, you test it, it’s right, it’s wrong, you re-formulate the picture, you test it and you develop a model. I wasn’t able to articulate that that way for a good many years, but I somehow sensed that Quakerism was much more sympathetic to the scientist than were many other denominations, or at least that appeared to be the case to me.
But modeling and testing, in science, usually have verifiability built in. What was your standard as a Quaker for modeling, to know that your model made sense that was right for you?
Different Quakers will answer that question different ways. I answer it by saying a gut reaction, an intuition, a sense that it felt right, along with occasional checking with some of my Congregation that I wasn’t off at a tangent. When you put so much emphasis on individual experience, individual revelation, as Quakers do, you do actually need some checks with a bigger group of people, otherwise you just have a load of loonies running off in different directions.
But that raises the question, it would seem to me that this kind of responsibility, carries with it a certain self-assurance that your intuition is basically on the right track. It may need iterative corrections from time to time, by the consensus of the whole, or by self, but that your intuition is worth something.
Yes and when you’re young and starting out, you don’t know for sure. But there are people who have written books describing experiences like you’ve had, so you begin to suspect it might be okay, and it develops into a self-consistent model, quite like a lot of astrophysics when you don’t have proof!
Well that’s an interesting parallel. What was it about physics that fascinated you most, that drew you to it?
Well, first of all I could clearly do it, when actually a lot of my classmates couldn’t do it and that gives one a great boost. I think we tend to like the things we’re good at. So, first of all I could do it. When I went away to boarding school at age 13, not only did I discover that I could do it and my classmates were struggling, I also discovered that I could explain it to my classmates and quite a few evenings in that boarding school were spent explaining to classmates how to do the problems that were physics homework. That gives one authority as well!
Was it something you did seek out and enjoy this position of authority?
I enjoyed the teaching that’s inherent in explaining things. I hadn’t quite realized at that stage that I was actually also a good teacher.
What equipment or facilities did you have for science in the state school and how did that change when you went to the boarding school? I would also like to have you fold into that a discussion of how a particular boarding school was chosen. By you, by your parents; how this came about.
I don’t remember an awful lot about experimental work in those two interim years before I went to boarding school. I know we did some but I just don’t remember a lot about it. I do remember when I went away to boarding school how very little equipment they had. I can remember a Physics teacher teaching us about the tangent galvanometer and then opening a supplier’s catalog, pointing to a photograph and saying, ‘That’s a tangent galvanometer.’ And then saying, ‘Look at the price!’ Whenever we had to do practical examinations as part of the public examination system, a great crate of material was ordered especially so that we could sit those exams. So our experimental facilities were limited.
A crate of material was ordered but rented?
No, actually purchased, specially purchased so that we had the kit to do the practical exam.
And then it was used up?
Well, some of it was glassware and things like that.
Where did you go, first of all?
Right. Parents decided, and this was decided I think almost before we were born that their children would go to the Quaker boarding schools in York, in the north of England. My father had been a pupil at the boys’ boarding school and regarded it very highly and there was a twin girls’ school and so we three girls went to ‘The Mount,’ which was the Quaker girls’ school and our brother went to the boys’ school which was called ‘Bootham,’ and they were both in the city of York. So that had been decided. I don’t think parents looked at any other schools. They were good schools, apart from problems with the science teaching, which many girls’ schools have, I have no complaints. One of the problems in Britain is that many girls’ schools, girls only schools, have problems getting good science teachers and ours was no exception, but we were very lucky with the Physics teacher. Chemistry was bad and the Math was poor but the Physics was very good.
So you have two things pulling to Physics. First you’re good at it and second you got a good teacher. He was the one who pointed at the galvanometer?
Yes. His name was Henry Tillot and he was a Yorkshire man and I think had spent all his life in Yorkshire. He was very elderly when he taught us. He had come out of retirement for the second time to teach us. He was quite arthritic and had difficulty moving but he could explain it, he was brilliant. He encouraged us. He let me have the run of the Physics Laboratory out-of-hours and one project I can remember doing is I decided I would plot the magnetic field of a bar magnet going out a long, long way, not just near the bar magnet. We had tiny compasses that we could use and that kind of thing. I made a mistake. I set myself up on this bench at the side of the laboratory and failed that notice that the magnet drawer was underneath the bench, so the magnetic field I got was peculiar and changed from day to day! But it was good learning experience.
Oh no. That’s an interesting point though. The term you used before, where was your checking system in this?
Well, I was looking for self-consistency and failing to find it. One knew what the picture should be like because you’d learned about it in class and it wasn’t coming out right!
When did you realize what the source of error was?
I think after two or three nights; partly because it changed from day to day. The classes during the day had been in the magnet drawer and they’d gone back in a different arrangement so the magnetic field up top was totally different and I was finding I couldn’t even get started, couldn’t get aligned —.
So there was something that was not right.
Something not consistent from night to night. And that was troubling me. I don’t actually recall the moment when I realized it was the magnet drawer, but maybe one night I sat up in a bench in the middle of the room. I can’t quite remember, but after two or three days I sussed out what the problem was and I remember telling Mr. Tillot of this experience, and the sort of grin that spread across his face.
So he may have known.
Well, I think he probably saw it as, you know, here’s this kid learning for her the hard way, but she’s learning.
So he knew the magnets were in the drawer, do you think?
He knew the magnets were in the drawer, but because I was doing this out of hours he didn’t know whereabout in the lab I was working.
When you discovered the source of error. What did you do about it?
Oh, I moved myself to a table in the middle of the room. I think I’ve made the classic mistake of pulling a magnet out of the drawer and just working on the nearest bit of bench, which was the bench above the drawer, failing to realize that there were other magnets there.
So even though you were interested in distant fields, you didn’t make the connection.
Not immediately. I didn’t realize that the magnetic field would go through the wood of the counter top. I think that was probably my basic problem.
Interesting. Did this make physics more fascinating, more challenging or what to you?
Well, certainly full of interest. It certainly held my interest. I enjoyed that very much.
It wasn’t something that frustrated you to the point of saying, “I don’t want to deal with it”?
No, I could handle it with enough uncertainty and challenge to keep me interested.
Okay. I see. Aside from the physics teacher, what other teachers would you say were influential on you at your boarding school?
We had a very good religious education teacher, and she was quite an influence in my developing Quakerism and in my moving from the kind of Quakerism I’d met in Northern Ireland, Ulster, to the sort of English style of Quakerism. So she played quite a big part in my growing up.
What was her name?
Okay. Were there field trips, chances to go to museums, books, libraries? How was your world changing?
There was a very good library in the school which I used quite a lot. I can remember that well. And there were quite a lot of excursions, visits, visiting speakers, music events, and things like that. I can remember going to a chemical plant. The company was ICI, which is a British company, Imperial Chemical Industries.
It has been called the British DuPont.
Yes, quite. And I can remember going, I guess with the chemistry class, on a visit there. I can also remember going somewhere where there was a computer and we were allowed to write a little program. I and a friend decided we would sum the first ten natural numbers, or maybe some the squares of the first ten natural numbers. I don’t remember which. They gave us a little class telling us what kind of instructions the program needed at the beginning in order to run, and then we were to write our little program, and then they told us about the ending instructions. And we punched paper tape. We had a very small single row, five-hole single row manual punched. It was only a ten-line program, so it wasn’t a big job, but I can remember doing that.
Could this have been Manchester, by any chance?
It might have been. I just really don’t remember. They obviously were used to having educational parties come in, because they had this sort of little classroom facility set up and would run our programs for us and say, “I’m sorry it didn’t run. You’d better try and work out why.” I remember ours ran perfectly the first time. It was the only one in the class that did, so we were very pleased with ourselves.
And this is your first brush with a computer.
First brush with a computer. And that will have been about 1960.
1960. It could have been many places by then.
But at least in the area of York, classically if it was 1950 it would have had to have been something like Manchester.
It would. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have let school parties in there at that time.
Right. Fair enough. Did you see any astronomical facilities like the early Jodrell Bank?
I don’t recall seeing anything from school, but one of the places where my father was architect was for the Armagh Observatory. Quite close to where we lived.
Oh. I didn’t make the connection. Well, we should talk about that. Please.
Yes. Well, the Armagh Observatory has a lovely old main building for which they need architectural advice for maintenance — you know, the roof is leaking and you know what do we do and how much do we need to do kind of thing, and we want to convert this, if we take down this wall will it fall down kind of thing. So there were those kinds of responsibilities. But he was also the architect for the new planetarium that they built there. This comes a little bit later. This was about 1967, ‘68, but features in the pulsar story. He was the architect for the planetarium because it was part of the observatory. And there were various other jobs an architect had to do. You know, one of the domes was leaking, and that kind of thing.
So he was an architect who would do detail technical work; he was not only conceptual, but mechanical as well.
Yes. He did both new buildings ab inicio and gave advice on a sort of contract basis for existing buildings. And at one point he let fall to the astronomy people at the observatory that his eldest daughter was interested in astronomy. I must have been in my teens — fifteen, sixteen by this stage.
And you were already at boarding school.
Yes, but the staff there were very kind and very helpful when they learnt that I was interested, and they showed me the telescopes and they showed me this and they showed me that. And one of them made a very significant statement. He said, “If you want to be an astronomer, you have to be good at staying up at night.” And as a teenager I knew I loved my bed and my sleep. And I became very depressed at that point, because I didn’t reckon I could make it as an astronomer.
I take it that was probably not Ernst Opik who said that.
I think it was not Ernst Opik. He was always very kind, very helpful. I think it may have been Grassie. Yes, and I’m pretty certain this was one of their observation lists. Yes.
Did he say that to the whole class or did he say that to you?
No, this was just me. I’d gone one vacation time when I was back home from boarding school. Father will have said something like, “I’m going over to Armagh Observatory on a job today. Do you want to come along for the ride?” and I said “yes” and quite often went with him — more, I think, than my younger brothers and sisters did. I sometimes went along as a surveying assistant holding a surveying pole. And he would sometimes let me do the Theodolite reading and record the data. And that was another place where I learnt to check back. Because when you are surveying you do a sort of loop closure, and if it doesn’t close you know you’ve got your numbers wrong somewhere. So I can remember doing that with him. It was very good training. Sometimes it was also in fields where there were stinging nettles that were waist high, but yes.
I know this is speculation, but the astronomer who said this to you, do you think he would have said that to you if you were a boy?
I wonder. I hadn’t thought of that. He might not have. It certainly was an era where there were very few female astronomers, and those that were, were being directed. For instance Mary Bruck, who married one of the directors of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, she was steered into solar astronomy because you could do it in daytime. And a couple of my contemporaries who ten years later will have been observing at the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceaux, two women were allowed to observe in pairs. A single woman was not allowed to observe; a man and a woman was not allowed to observe. And if two women observed in pairs, they weren’t allowed to drive home afterwards. It was not deemed safe.
A lot of obstacles put in your way that are supposedly for your safety, but not necessarily logical.
And sometimes excluding in some sense, yes.
Was it around this time when you started thinking about the future? I mean you were in what is equivalent here to high school.
High school, yes, going through high school, yes.
Were your parents talking about college?
Yes, and what I would do and what I wanted to be and that kind of thing.
And how did those conversations go? Were they conversations you looked forward to, or like any teenager or most teenagers, that you dreaded?
What I think was remarkable was that the decision about what I would do was left up to me. There was no pressure put on me to go any particular way. I did consider architecture. Through following my father around on his visits, I learned quite a lot about architecture and was quite interested in the history of architecture. Still am. So I wondered about that, but reckoned I probably wasn’t good enough on the art and design side. I could judge, but I could not create.
You realized this as a child?
Yes. I mean, in school, high school, you have a chance to sample all kinds of subjects, including art classes, and I wasn’t terribly good at art classes myself — although I was good at judging what was good. I could identify good design, but I couldn’t make it myself. So I looked at architecture. I looked at archaeology as a possibility. I was interested in that. I started an Archaeology Society at this boarding school, and we went digging — for a Roman road, because York is a big old Roman center. We didn’t find the Roman road, but we were assured by the local archaeologist who was supervising us that, you know, a negative — result was useful — which is also very true in science. So we had established that down to a depth of about six feet the Roman road did not run through the school grounds. But my father brought home some astronomy library books one day. He brought home Fred Hoyle’s Frontiers of Astronomy and something by Dennis Sciama — and I can’t remember the title of that book. It dealt a lot with Mach’s principle. I remember struggling. And I didn’t just flip through these books; I took them off to my bedroom to read. You know, and a fortnight later Dad was saying, “Where is my library books?” Sorry, “a fortnight” means two weeks. I became hooked. And that’s when I decided I wanted to do astronomy. And then followed the incident at Armagh Observatory where I was told you have to be able to stay up at night. And I became quite depressed at that point, because it didn’t look as if I could do astronomy.
So that really did affect you.
It did, yes.
Did you talk to your Dad about it, or anybody?
Probably, although I don’t remember doing that. But a few months later I discovered there was a subject called radio astronomy which you can do in the daytime, so I decided I was going to be a radio astronomer. I must have been about fifteen, sixteen, and it was getting to the stage where you had to decide what subjects you were going to study. The British schoolchildren specialize a lot, lot sooner. By about age sixteen you are down to three subjects and you pursue those subjects at college. The careers mistress at the boarding school had not heard of radio astronomy.
Even with Bernard Lovell being so well known?
She still hadn’t heard of it. So I took the initiative and I wrote to Bernard Lovell. I didn’t have a proper address. It was Jodrell Bank, somewhere in Cheshire, you know. And I said, “I want to be a radio astronomer. What subjects should I do at university?” And (a) he got the letter, and (b) he replied. And he told me what I needed to know.
Do you have that letter?
I’m not sure that I do. I might. It’s a long time since I’ve, you know, had a real look through my files and things.
But you do keep things.
I keep some things, but every time you have to move house and you look at the amount of stuff you have, you know, some of it gets thrown out. You weed. So I don’t know if I still have that letter or not.
It’s the sort of thing that would be a goldmine.
Right. Well, I will have a look.
Both ways. If you had a copy of your own letter; it might be in his papers.
I told him this story, and he said he would have a look and he never got back, so I don’t know whether he didn’t find it or whether he forgot to look.
Knowing that his papers are so huge, and they’re in the Ryland’s Library in Manchester.
Right. So, he wrote back to you. Do you remember what he said?
He said, “Do physics.” He said some people come in through electrical engineering, and there are some people doing this new computing stuff, but basically physics was a good route to go. So I was still a little bit uncertain about whether I should do some astronomy or not, so I applied to universities where you could do astronomy, but I ended up doing physics, straight physics.
Which universities did you apply to?
Well, I applied to Glasgow and went to Glasgow. I also applied to Liverpool, which was my father’s old university. Where else did I apply? Manchester. And I can’t remember where else. There will have been one or two more. I applied to about five.
Just mentioning those three, what decided you on Glasgow? Or did they decide for you? What were your grades like, and your student records?
Student records, given that I was an 11+ failure, were extremely good. The school did not suggest that I apply to Oxford or Cambridge. They didn’t consider me that level. The equivalent here would be Ivy League. So they didn’t think I was Ivy League, but I was very definitely going to college — somewhere.
Did many students from your school go to Oxford or Cambridge or Edinburgh?
One a year, if we were lucky, went to Oxford or Cambridge.
One a year. Okay.
And some years there wasn’t even that. One of our year did go, and one the year before went.
But it’s not a pipeline school.
No. No. And the competition for women to get into Oxford and Cambridge was particularly high, because there were a limited number of places for women.
And much more limited than for the men. So you had to be exceptionally bright.
How did you end up at Glasgow instead of Manchester let’s say? Because Manchester had wonderful physics.
I don’t completely remember. I know my father, indeed my parents, talked with a lot of people and said, “What universities are good for physics?” and that gave a sort of short list. I note wryly that when you ask that question you are actually asking about the university’s research record in previous decades. And not its’ teaching record right now, which is what an undergraduate should be asking about. But they went around and asked, you know, what universities were good for physics. I had got very tired of the long journey across England from Northern Ireland to York, so I decided I wanted to be on the west coast of the country but not back in Northern Ireland. So you see, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester are all down the west side of the country. Why it actually turned out to be Glasgow, probably because I fancied Scotland. We had spent some holidays sailing on the west coast of Scotland, and I love the country. So I think I probably fancied being in Scotland for a change. I was also looking at big cities, because I was aware that our Quaker boarding school had been a bit enclosed — isolated from the world — and I wanted, you know, to make sure I got into the world, so to speak, so I had gone for some big cities for that reason.
Well, let’s talk about boys. Had you discovered boys by then?
We were pretty segregated in this boarding school. There was very limited opportunity and there was even less opportunity at home. So there weren’t any serious boyfriends at school. Not ‘til I got to college did I start going out with boys in anything more than a very casual way.
And it wasn’t a factor in your choice of school.
No. There were no attachments of any sort.
Okay. And were there any economic considerations — any economic constraints or whatever for which school you would choose?
No, because the system in Britain is that there are not private universities. There are all State Universities. So there was really no difference between them in that point of view.
So you chose Glasgow. How would you typify your experience at Glasgow?
Well, it was certainly very different from what I expected. One of the things that took me by surprise is that almost all the students lived at home. They came in on the bus at nine o’clock and they went home on the bus at five o’clock. Which I hadn’t expected, but actually is quite the norm in — well, certainly in Glasgow and in one or two other Scottish Universities. It was a big city. I had certainly achieved that okay. It was a big city that was beginning to decline. The ship building was going, the heavy industry was beginning to go, and it was quite, quite rough in parts — very rough in some parts. I lived in digs for the first year — sorry — in lodgings for the first year, and then was in a women’s dorm for the next two years and in the first coed dorm for my final year. Living in the women’s dorm was an interesting experience. It’s where I first really came across questions like, “Are you sure you want to do physics? Can you bear to do physics? How can you do physics?”
From your peers.
Yes, from my peers. And also the attitude, “Well, you are only going to get married, so why are you bothering about doing an honors degree? Why not just do general degrees like the rest of us, a pass degree, and a three-year degree?” There wasn’t a lot of ambition amongst women, other than to get married. Which caught me slightly by surprise? I met it amongst the less academic girls at my high school, but the more academic ones, the brighter ones, were going to go and get full honors degrees.
Did you seek out other more dedicated academics among the students as your friends?
Yes, except I was the only female in the honors physics class in a class of fifty.
Would you typify that as self— selection?
Yes. I think that’s probably a fair comment. Yes. There were many others that could have done physics honors but didn’t. It was also an inhibiting atmosphere for women. There was a tradition in that university that whenever a woman walked into a lecture hall all the guys in the room would stamp [makes noise of loud stomping and banging on desktops] their desks and whistle and catcall. Every time. So for my junior and senior years, I had to face that every time I went into a classroom. And again, the women in my dorm said, “Jocelyn, why don’t you change course?” So I had to stop and think, “Do I really want to do physics badly enough that I am going to live with this?”
This was a tradition? Was this a British tradition?
It was a Glasgow tradition. I’m sure there were other schools that did it, but it wasn’t throughout Britain.
How far back does that go, do you think?
That I don’t know.
I wonder where it came from. It certainly is a very derisive sort of thing.
Yes. What really annoys me in retrospect is my contemporaries probably didn’t in a sense realize what they were doing; it was just, you know what people did. But the faculty did nothing, and thereby condoned it. Indeed, one or two of the faculty smirked and looked as if they’d like to join in.
But they didn’t. They didn’t join in.
They didn’t join in, no.
Did you ever protest formally?
No, I didn’t. Looking back on it, I’m not quite sure why. But in part I guess it’s as I got older that I got a perspective on things, that I’ve seen more clearly the injustices or whatever you want to call them — the thousand pinpricks. I wasn’t terribly alert — I wasn’t at all alert — as a feminist in those days.
It’s a very curious custom. Could it have been so ingrained that it was just something they did?
Yes, absolutely. They learnt it from the class ahead of them.
And you didn’t take it personally, I take it, but it was still this identification of being a woman.
Yes. . And being the only woman, I mean it was fairly clear who it was directed at.
Did this happen in classes where there was a larger fraction of women?
I suspect in arts faculties where women were in the majority it must have been a much feebler affair and probably petered out.
It was teasing. Here was only one occasion where it was hostile, and that was the time I came top in a subsidiary math exam, and they were livid.
Yes. I was scared on that occasion.
Did you ever question your resolve?
I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I knew that I had to get a degree. And probably in most sciences in Glasgow you would have faced that kind of barricade, harassment, so actually changing and doing another science wouldn’t actually help.
Did you ever go home and say you’d like to find a university where they don’t do this sort of thing?
Somehow I don’t think that occurred to me. There weren’t many people who transferred university. What I did do was to learn not to blush. You can actually control your blushing. And within a few weeks I had achieved that. And that gave the guys much less reward. But I was obviously quite nervous in class. We sat in long benches, continuous wooden benches and continuous wooden desks.
Tiered, yes. And the women sat in the front row, always. We were put there. In some classes there were assigned seats; in some classes it was just the norm that the women sat in the front row or two, depending on how many women there were, and the men sat behind them. And I can remember on one or two occasions being sufficiently nervous that my pen fell over the edge. And the Instructor came and picked it up and handed it to me. And that provoked [makes loud banging and stomping noises].
Yes. Oh yes. Yes. And if I asked a question in class, it would probably be accompanied by a bit of that — particularly if my question was a good one.
But it was always just that? When you scored highest in this exam, was it still just a—
It was an amplified version of that. And more sort of booing and hissing and catcalling.
Here many times when people hit or stomp their feet, its applause.
Yes. No, this wasn’t. This was barracking. This is Irish slang. I guess a combination of harassment and teasing would be the translation.
How did you keep from blushing? Did you try to turn it into applause —?
No, it was part of entering the Lecture Theater. You took a deep breath and you sort of mentally controlled your face. You can actually stop from flushing, with a bit of practice.
Did this ever make you think how you were going to survive a whole life of this? Or did you think, “It can’t be this way once I’m an astronomer.”
I’m not sure that I remember. I think I suspected that it was peculiar, or that it was local. I don’t know how I came to that conclusion. Maybe I met up with some of my high school friends and asked them, you know, “In your university, do they do this?” and they said, “No.” That’s probably most likely what happened, so I knew that it was a local and temporary phenomena; that I wouldn’t have to, at least in that form, tolerate it the whole of my life.
As you moved through Glasgow and took courses in Physics, what was your first course in astronomy, or did you take any astronomy?
In the end, I didn’t take any astronomy. I had quite a discussion with an advisor when I arrived in Glasgow because I had said on my form that I wanted to be an astronomer. I had judged that I ought to do some university level chemistry. One of my reasons for doing physics was that I knew I you could only do astronomy in an academic environment and I had no idea at that stage what class of degree I would get; I didn’t know whether I was academic caliber or not, so I was very carefully keeping my options open and I judged I’d be better equipped to get a job in the outside world if I’d actually done a bit of university level chemistry than university level astronomy. It was also the case that astronomy in Glasgow, at that time, was pretty dull. It was positional astronomy, with all the little modifications that you have to make, the precessions, the corrections and so on, and it didn’t strike me as being very exciting. So, although it was a real struggle, because I hadn’t done any chemistry for several years, I actually did the first year of chemistry at Glasgow.
And was this on the advice of the person you talked to?
I think I had it in my mind and I will have discussed it with them but the initiative probably came from me.
So you decided not to take the astronomy there. What were your plans for the future, or is there anything that I’m missing in Glasgow that is important to development of your career that we should cover.
There’s probably not a lot else from Glasgow that’s relevant. I wanted to be a radio astronomer, I was clear about that, if I was of sufficient academic standard.
But did you have any idea what a radio astronomer did?
Yes. By that stage I had read at least one of Bernard Lovell’s books; I had been to hear Martin Ryle lecture ... I think it must have been something like an IAU meeting in Ireland. It was some big meeting and Martin Ryle gave a big lecture in Belfast and a big lecture in Dublin, as part of it, on radio astronomy, and I can remember that. My parents took me to the Belfast one.
And what do you recall fascinated you about what you could do with radio astronomy?
What I particularly liked was that it was astronomy plus physics. It was applying a lot of the physics, the electromagnetic theory that I was learning as an undergraduate and I became more and more convinced that that was what I wanted to do.
Were there particular problems that fascinated you?
No, I think like many kids I was grabbed by the sheer scale and splendor of the field, of the cosmos, the sizes, the quantities, really struck me, and also the number of beautiful pictures of galaxies in books.
But they weren’t coming out of radio astronomy, not those pictures.
No, but they were beginning to identify radio galaxies which was fascinating — how did the radio galaxies relate to these beautiful spirals that we saw photographed in the books? So it was good.
What about the technical or instrumentation side? Was that something attractive to you?
I’ve been a user of instruments but I’ve never been particularly keen on building instruments and unlike many of my male contemporaries I did not build radios as a high school kid, or things like that, didn’t do any of that. I read books but somehow, the radio ham stuff passed me by, maybe just because of the worlds I moved in.
But you had a radio?
We had a radio in the house for listening to the BBC, yes.
But you didn’t tinker with it?
No. I wasn’t particularly interested, possibly because there was nobody else around who could’ve anyway told me what the bits were; there was nobody else in the house taking radios to bits.
What about in your school experience? Did you take electronics courses?
No such thing existed.
Not even at Glasgow?
Oh in Glasgow, yes, but in boarding school, high school, nothing like that existed.
We did a bit of electromagnetic theory, yes.
Making a motor?
I doubt if the school had the equipment for that. Remember it had to buy in stuff so we could sit the practical exams? At university we had courses on the electronics, yes and we will have had some labs on electronics and so on. I did them — don’t remember being particularly grabbed by them. What I did do which made a big impression was Jodrell Bank started running summer schools in the year between my junior and senior year at college and I went on this summer school.
And what year would that be?
Summer of 1964. It was the first ever summer school that Jodrell had run. They did not expect women to apply; they had no dormitory accommodation for women and two of us did apply so we were accommodated in the course organizer’s house — Henry Palmer, he was one of the Jodrell Bank astronomers.
Who was the other woman?
Her name was Julie Turner and she was a physics undergraduate at Birmingham and I kept up with her for a few years after but lost contact.
What was that course like?
It was very good and it was immense fun. We typically had a few lectures a day and the rest of the day we were attached to a research group. I was attached to Rod Davis’ hydrogen line group which had just started studying the OH radical and it was OH in absorption; they hadn’t even discovered the maser stuff then. It was fascinating, because the OH clouds were not in the same place as the neutral hydrogen clouds and they couldn’t believe this and they thought I’d done the data analysis wrong, so they kept saying, “Re— do it, re— do it.” But it genuinely was the case that the OH distribution was different from the neutral hydrogen. I also remember that there was a computer in Manchester at that stage; there was a land line connection to the computer in Manchester, but this land line was broken for most of the summer we were there and we, the summer students, were doing long multiplications, long divisions and it really made a difference to my arithmetic which showed for several years. I can remember in the Senior Honors class, the Faculty being impressed with my arithmetic. You know, we were doing something in the laboratory and I would produce the answer far, far quicker than they could or anybody else could and it was because I spent six weeks doing long arithmetic.
This was not something from your early childhood?
No, I mean my arithmetic was perfectly competent. We were a generation that learnt tables and things like that, but this made it brilliant!
I see. Did the Jodrell summer change your ideas about anything?
I was even more convinced I wanted to do radio astronomy. By that stage, it was clear that I was going to get a respectable Honors class degree and therefore that I was in the running for a grad student position. I talked with some of the Jodrell people and the Faculty would say, “Yes, do apply to Jodrell,” and the grad students would say, “You know, Sir Bernard has the reputation of being a misogynist.” There had been a grad student many years before; she and a male grad student had put the dormitory to a use for which it was not intended. The male had bragged; it had reached Sir Bernard’s ears and he said, “I’m not having a woman on site ever again!” It’s interesting the women carry the consequences for some of these actions! So I was warned by the grad students that I wouldn’t get accepted. But my options were Jodrell Bank or Cambridge and I didn’t think I’d get into Cambridge, so I applied to Jodrell Bank and there was a stony silence.
The Professor had great power, I mean, he would have had final say, there was nothing like a committee?
There might have been a token committee, but the Professor would have had the final say. The official line from Jodrell, subsequently, is that my application fell down the back of the desk, but I gave up on Jodrell and reckoned I was going to Australia to do my PhD. The Australian academic year began several months later than the UK one. It starts in January, February, so I had a few months to spare and I put an application to Cambridge, just in case and got accepted.
Do you know what the decision process was like at Cambridge? Did you have contact with Ryle or any of the others, other than when he lectured?
By the time I was applying, I had to write and say, “Look, would you consider a late application but by the way, I bring my own grant with me.” One of the scary things I went through was when I discovered that because I was Northern Irish, I was not eligible for the standard Research Council grant and that looked bad. Then I discovered that the Northern Irish had their own route for providing grants and it was slightly different in that they awarded the grants to the individual student, whereas the rest of the British system awarded the grant to the Department. So I could say to Ryle, fortunately, I would bring my own grant and probably on that basis he accepted me late.
But you don’t know? You’ve not had any subsequent discussion with him?
No, I didn’t as far as I can remember. I know he insisted that I got a either a first or an upper class second degree, which is this slightly antiquated British classification system and I didn’t get a first but obviously my second class must have been a very good one because I got accepted by Cambridge and I actually went to work there that summer.
And that was the summer of ‘65?
A lot of quasar work was going on then. I’d love to have your first impressions of the place and then find out what you did that summer.
Okay. We were just about to talk about your first Cambridge summer.
Right. Yes. I went to Cambridge in July of 1965, the day after my graduation ceremony in Glasgow. I just moved straight from one to the other.
You didn’t go home?
I had been home before graduation, came back to graduate, and then went south. This was incidentally the furthest south I had been in Britain, to live or work, and it felt very different from York or Glasgow. It was definitely urbane and south, and Cambridge was very urbane and very confident, Cambridge University. And I think I felt a bit provincial — somebody, you know, from the outposts, from the sticks. Everybody was clearly very, very bright, and I was a little surprised to find myself there. Everybody was very friendly. In the radio astronomy department, everybody was on a first names basis, and I actually found it quite hard to begin with to call Martin Ryle “Martin” and Tony Hewish “Tony.”
And that was the culture?
That was the culture. Yes, within the radio astronomy group, that was the culture. It was a very exciting place to be, very lively, and I think my Ph.D. project was identified that July.
Yes. I think I’m right on this. I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think I’m right. I do know that the fact that I had attended the Jodrell Bank summer school the previous summer put me in a different category from all the other new arrivals. I had some knowledge and some background, and I was given much more choice of projects than the other three or four people joining the group as grad students.
Who were they?
There was Martin Smith, there was somebody who already had a Ph.D. from the University of Wales and was doing a second Ph.D. Duffrick. I can’t remember his final name. He was on the ionospheric side rather than the radio astronomy side. Guy Pooley, who is still in Cambridge and still in the field. And various topics for Grad students were set out, because in Britain there isn’t grad school in the same way. You don’t have courses and you don’t have exams to the same extent. You go straight into your research project within a few weeks of arriving, and you have three years in which to do it. And actually very few people complete it within three years. I am one of very few who did, one of a handful. I actually did it in three years.
Did you go with any particular projects in mind, or were you an open slate?
I had interests. I was interested in radio and radio propagation, and therefore was interested in the effect of the Sun on radio propagation. And I remember that being one of the influencing factors.
That’s related to ionospheric physics, is it not?
Yes, and solar activity. So I therefore was attracted by a project which involved interplanetary scintillation and solar wind. That’s how I ended up, one of the reasons I ended up working with Tony Hewish. But I do also remember them saying that this other project, which I think was a lunar occultation project, was not suitable for a woman because it involved a lot of climbing up and down antennae structures. It had a rebuild phase before you got into the data collection phase. And the rebuild involved quite a lot of high, you know, you work up ladders and things like that. The project I went into had a lot of building, but it was mostly with your feet on the ground. And that was apparently okay for a woman. But this one where you were working aloft they didn’t think was too good for a woman, so I was steered away from that other one.
And who was the person running that other project?
That was Paul Scott. But I think it was probably Martin Ryle that steered me away from it. And, as you have already alluded, quasars were very important things at that time. Maartin Schmidt had just identified the red shift of the first one. It was realized that they were very, very distant. And Tony Hewish, with prompting from Margaret Clark, had realized that quasars tended to show scintillation or a twinkling and it was reckoned, Tony reckoned that this was due to density irregularities in the solar wind, so that when you viewed the compact quasar through this irregular solar wind it would show intensity fluctuations or scintillation. And that the radio galaxies, which had larger angular diameters, would not show this effect. I think this phenomenon had first been identified by Margaret Clark a few years earlier, but Tony had developed it and had put in a grant proposal for money to build a large radio telescope to look for scintillating sources — which would be quasars. Therefore it was a neat way of identifying a lot of quasars. You could also get an estimate of the angular diameter of a quasar because the size of the density irregularities grew as they moved away from the Sun in the solar wind. They expanded, and so, you watched your quasar as the line of sight got closer to the Sun. At some point where the quasar angular diameter fell above the angular diameter of the irregularities, the blobs, the quasar scintillation would diminish. So the idea was to find the quasars and monitor their scintillation over a six month period as the line of sight moved towards the Sun and then away from the Sun again. You should see the scintillation grow and then decline as you approach the Sun or near the side of the Sun it will increase and decrease again. Where it peaked it would give you an estimate of the angular diameter. So that was my thesis topic.
This was a way of getting around the resolution problem?
Yes, using the density irregularities in the solar wind. It’s not a very refined method. It has not turned out to be a very good method of measuring angular diameters, but it was an important step forward in those days.
Quite creative actually.
What has always fascinated me is conceptually understanding what or how an interferometer works as opposed to a big dish.
And you went from Jodrell Bank to Cambridge where the philosophy was totally different.
How aware were you of that difference, and which of the two methodologies, hierarchical structures, which were you more comfortable with?
There were several differences between the Cambridge radio astronomy group and the Jodrell Bank radio astronomy group. One was the Jodrell tended to be single dish and Cambridge interferometry. Another one was that Jodrell deliberately pointed its telescope at something, and Cambridge did surveys by letting the sky drift overhead. And I was aware of both of those. And there was also a third sort of sociological difference in that the Cambridge radio astronomy group was a very tight, integrated, self— sufficient group. It had its own social activities, it was very egalitarian. Jodrell Bank had Sir Bernard as the head, and a number of fewer mortals underneath and quite a hierarchical structure.
You experienced this firsthand, I take it.
Yes. I wasn’t able to articulate the sociological differences for a while, but before I went I knew about the scientific differences. Indeed, I had had an argument with my Glasgow professor, Professor Dee. He was involved in the discovery of the neutron, worked in the Cavendish with Chadwick. So he was a Grand Man of science and very pro— Cambridge. And he initially didn’t approve of me applying to Jodrell Bank. There was a certain amount of antipathy between the two groups. I think I convinced him that it was sensible that, you know, I might not get into Cambridge. But at the time there was this argument with Dee. There was a discussion along the lines of, “Well you know Cambridge had this terribly sophisticated technique,” says Dee and I says, “Yes, I know, but they don’t point at anything. They just let the sky drift through. Jodrell Bank does targeted observations.” I remember this, because I was slightly surprised at myself being so forthright and arguing with the professor. But anyway, it’s ironic that I ended up in Cambridge with a telescope that picked up things that drifted through the beam in the light of this argument with Dee.
Of course. Have you read the book by Edge and Mulkay?’
Yes, yes. Well of course it came along a lot afterward, so it was read in retrospect. I thought it was a very fair analysis. I thought they hit a number of nails on the head. And it was incidentally out of the research for that book that they began to realize that the women who had been through those two groups had very different subsequent career paths from their male colleagues and they did a subsequent piece of work on women’s career paths and men’s career paths. And that was all part of the same research. Yes.
So your thesis was identified straightaway.
And you then entered into the phase of working on the instrumentation with Hewish.
Yes. If I remember rightly, what I did that summer was to build several small prototype areas to work out some of the details of the spacing and the distances and the optimum arrangements. And then in the fall started building the big, four— acre radio telescope. But then I spent the summer also literally out in the field, driving posts into the ground and stringing copper wire up and seeing which of these prototypes gave the best efficiency.
How many thesis students did Hewish have? Were you doing this with other people?
I was the only thesis student in my year. There were I think two students in the year ahead that were being supervised by Tony Hewish, and I think none in the final year. So I think he probably had three grad students, but I was the only first year one.
Were they all working on different aspects of the same thing, getting at quasar dimensions and structure?
One of them was studying the size of the blobs in the interplanetary medium. We all had distinct topics, and they were contiguous rather than overlapping. It was quite carefully done.
So you would typify this as a well thought out research engine that Hewish manufactured?
Yes, that’s right. And we each had our own area of research. And whilst they were all related to interplanetary scintillation, they were distinct topics within that area.
Could you see the logic in how he laid out the plan and you knew what your associate students were doing?
How did it work formally with Hewish? Would he ever have formalized seminars where his group would get together and discuss mutual problems? Or how did he stimulate communication?
There were very few of Tony Hewish’s group meetings. I can actually only remember one or maybe one followed by another one, where somebody published a paper. I think it was [Edwin] Salpeter, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. Somebody published a paper which appeared to invalidate all the work that Tony and his group was doing. So we had a group meeting where we discussed this paper in particular and whether it was right and to what extent it was right and so on. And I think Tony was probably quite rattled by that paper, quite disturbed. Because that’s the only time I can remember.
So it was like a crisis situation.
So what was a non— crisis day like, a day in the life of a graduate student working on a thesis at Cambridge at this time? How would you typify a day?
My typical day would be spending the mornings out at the Lords bridge Radio Astronomy Observatory. For two years we were building the aerial and we’d spend mornings out there building it, and for the final year it was running a survey. So mornings were typically spent out there, come back in at lunchtime to the center of Cambridge and spend the afternoons in the Cavendish analyzing records or going to seminars or whatever. That was the typical kind of day. All the grad students, thirteen of us, were in the attic. It was a great big single room with thirteen of us in it, and quite often our supervisors would come up there for conversation — what was meant to be a one-on-one conversation between supervisor and grad student, but of course the other twelve grad students were listening in on it and occasionally offering helpful comments.
This was in the Cavendish?
Not on Maddingly Road.
No, they had not moved out at that stage. This was the old Cavendish in the center of Cambridge. It was a building where Lord Rutherford had worked. And after we moved out, it was discovered that Rutherford had been careless with his radioactive materials and before the social scientists would move in the whole building had to be decontaminated.
But it was okay for you!
Well, I think nobody knew — or nobody was asking.
Was this a bit of an unusual thing to do, to spend two years of your mornings in the field? I mean, this is almost like going back to farming.
Yes. It was not unusual in the radio astronomy group, but it was unusual beyond the radio astronomy group. It was very cold work and it was quite heavy manual work as well. And I became very fit and I became very tanned. I can remember people saying to me, “Have you been on a skiing holiday?” And it was just the wind, the cold wind out there. And I played field hockey, at that stage. And I remember with all the driving of posts into the ground I became very strong and I could whack the hockey ball from one corner to the far diagonal corner. And my teammates never learnt to start running early enough. “Oh, Jocelyn! How am I meant to get that ball?”
Interesting. It sounds like you enjoyed it.
Yes. It was physically tough. And I can remember — I had a boyfriend by that stage — I can remember at weekends that what I would have loved to have done was sit in an armchair by a fire, and what my boyfriend wanted to do was to get out and go for a walk. So we had a conflict, because of our different patterns of weekly activities.
Is he the fellow you married?
We’ll get to him in a minute. But I want to know whether you felt, or whether it was unusual among the graduate students — non-radio astronomy students — what their attitude was to the fact that you were spending half your day in pure manual labor, supposedly strong back/weak mind syndrome, you never know, and how you felt about it. Was this a career path for you? Had you made the right choice? How positive were you about the future?
It seemed to be going according to schedule, which was reassuring, although it meant that my third and final year was going to be very hectic. Because the building was reckoned to take eighteen months to two years and it took two years, and then I would have six months of operating it and then six months of writing up my thesis. And that is actually what happened. The building went more or less to schedule. So, although it was a long time to be doing heavy manual labor, I wasn’t panicking in that sense. The panic actually hit when the pulsars came along, because that was additional to my thesis. And Tony had said the thesis still had to be on the interplanetary scintillation and the quasar angular diameters; that I couldn’t change that. So somehow in my final year I had to deal with pulsars and get the thesis together. That was a bit scary.
He had planned out this whole thesis package as a package.
Yes, that’s right, yes.
So in a way he was an architect of your career at that time.
Yes. That’s right. Grad students in Britain [are] expected to buy into a package of some sort, so it was quite normal that you would attach yourself to a thesis advisor and they would have a project ready and lined up for you. Indeed, they wouldn’t be accepting a Grad student if they did not have a package, a project that was suitable, something ready to go. That’s the only conceivable way you could get a Ph.D. in three years. There had to be a reasonably cut and dried clear project there and waiting.
Right. Well, I would like you then to carry through your thesis to completion of the thesis, including the pulsar surprise.
And then we’ll talk about your marriage after that.
Yep. Yep. If we don’t run out of time.
Well, I can certainly stay, but it’s really your time.
And it’s okay. Burnell I spent the first two years building this antenna as I’ve described. I was one of a group of about half a dozen people — some technicians, some postdocs roped in to help. Fairly well-organized. We each had our own area of responsibility. I didn’t do too much of the driving of stakes into the ground. I had responsibility for what we call the balance-to-unbalance transformers, BALUNs [in the game. I had responsibility basically for the cabling and the connecting of cables I think is the best way to describe it.]
What about the design of the aerials? Was that all worked out before?
The first summer that I had been there I had done various prototypes, and that had settled what the design was to be. Tony had a rough idea for the grant proposal that got the money, and then we refined that rough idea my first summer and settled on a design and then spent the next two years implementing that design.
What was your contribution to the final design?
It was at the level of a half wave dipole works better than folded four way or better than quarter way and a reflecting screen of these dimensions at such and such a position works best, that kind of thing. So it was tinkering with the broad design that Tony had conceived. And of course my first summer I wasn’t terribly experienced. So they were supervising me pretty closely at that stage. After two years of construction we switched on the radio telescope. It worked first time. Very unusual. I attribute that to the technician we had, Don Rolf, who had been a lad in the British Navy and had been very carefully trained. And he wouldn’t let us scientists take shortcuts when we desperately wanted to. I think it is due to him that it worked.
Would the shortcuts be for your convenience or economic?
So, it worked. We had four beams simultaneously — or at least we did when all the kit arrived. At the very beginning we didn’t have all four, but the norm was four beams.
Same frequencies but different declinations. The telescope was a transit instrument. It was firmly rooted to the ground. But we could steer the beam in elevation and therefore in declination. And we could have operated with sixteen beams if we’d had sixteen receivers, but four receivers were as much as the project could afford. So we had four receivers and four pen recorders, four moving chart pen recorders. Very limited computing facilities in those days, and what computing facilities there were, were used by Martin Ryle’s aperture synthesis interferometers. Lesser projects like ours had to do with grad student labor instead of computers. The chart recorders churned out between them 96 feet of chart paper per day. And we took four days to scan the sky.
At these four declinations.
Moving. Combing is the best way to describe it. We did four declinations on one day, next day we moved to four different declinations, four more and four more. So our total sky survey was sixteen declination strips.
So the entire visible sky.
Yes. And everybody else had disappeared from the project at this stage. It was my job to run it and my job to analyze those charts. And most of my afternoons and many of my evenings were taken up by scanning these 96 feet of chart paper that came out of the telescope a day.
What was involved in a scan? What does a scan mean? Today it means electronic machines.
Right. I was running my eye over the chart, looking for a particular shape or pattern.
You made an oscillating motion with your finger.
Yes, right. We were looking for fringes; interferometer fringes. But there were actually very few fringes, because the two halves of the interferometer abutted. They were physically together but electrically in two halves, and it was those two electrical halves that formed the two halves of the interferometer and gave a very minimal fringe pattern — a small minimum, a strong maximum, a small minimum, and that was it. And I was looking for that pattern with scintillation or twinkling or intensity variations on top of it. So, as well as the smooth fringe pattern I would be looking for jitter on the tops and the bottoms of the fringes.
So the fringe pattern would indicate a point source?
And modulating that is the electronic interplanetary scintillation.
The interplanetary scintillation. That’s right. And that was the sign of a quasar. Having identified that as a quasar, I then had to estimate the amplitude of the scintillation, the amplitude of the jitter. Because that was the amplitude that was going to change over the months and allow me to estimate the angular diameter. So each time I saw a twinkling or scintillating source, I noted its right ascension, what declination beam we were on, and what the amplitude of the scintillation was. And then passed on to the next twinkling source. We let the telescope run day and night. Interplanetary scintillation is really a daytime phenomenon because it’s solar based — solar wind based. So there should not be any scintillation in the depths of the night. But it was simpler just to let the system keep running than arrange to switch it on and switch it off. And I would go out to the observatory each morning and put fresh paper in the chart recorders and fresh ink in the inkwells and see that everything was running okay and do a bit of maintenance. You know, things were falling down every so often, coming undone and had to be done up again, so there were jobs like that, but the bulk of my effort went on this chart analysis, which was quite slow.
It was all visual?
It’s all visual, yes.
Did you have any kind of labor-saving devices for when you found the fringe pattern how you would measure it, or was it just a ruler?
We had one or two devices. Our chart recording was actually a three-track chart recording. And one of it was just the raw data that came in, as I have described it. But the next record was high pass filtered. We took out the slow interference pattern and left the more rapid scintillation or jitter, let it go through, and actually I used that recording most —. It was the most useful. From it you got the times and the amplitudes most successfully. So that was actually the one I used the most. Now things were progressing fairly steadily. There was a lot of locally generated interference. If you have a radio telescope with a collecting area 4.5 acres, like we had, you’re very sensitive to man-made interference: arc-welders that spark, sparking thermostats, illegal radio emissions from pirate radio stations, misallocation of radio frequencies. At one point, the British Home Office allocated to the East Anglia Police (that means the Cambridgeshire Police), a radio frequency that was meant to be kept clear for the Cambridge radio astronomers, so for the best part of a week we did no radio astronomy because we could only hear the police cars, until we got them shifted. There were things like that and every so often on these chart recordings, in addition to the scintillating quasars, there’d be some interference which was also usually high frequency, like the scintillation. Sometimes it blasted everything off scale, it was quite clear it was interference, sometimes it was much lower level and could be confused with a scintillating quasar. But the scintillating quasars would reappear whereas the radio interference would reappear but at a different time, so mostly you got the interference sorted out. There was one point in the middle of the night when there seemed to be something that was not quite a scintillating source and not quite radio interference and this is what turned out to be the pulsars. The first few times I saw this signal, I logged it with a question mark, I didn’t quite know what to make of it but I logged it.
You called it a “scruff’ or “scruffle”?
Scruff. Sorry, this is another Irish vocabulary. “Scruff’ means untidy, taffy — I think untidy is the best translation. It was a little bit of signal, there was no clear interference pattern that went with it so it wasn’t a strong point source, but the high frequency stuff was showing through. It somehow didn’t properly look like a scintillating source. I can now quantify that with hindsight, but at the time I didn’t understand. Because it turned out to be a pulsed source, the fluctuations were all in one sense, whereas scintillation goes positive and negative and the other thing that was happening is a quasar would be in the radio beam for about 4 minutes. This scruff wasn’t always there for 4 minutes sometimes only 1, sometimes 2, which I now understand, because it wasn’t a strong source. When it was strong, it didn’t stay strong very long. You might only have it above the detection threshold for 1 or 2 minutes, rarely for the full 4 minutes. So it didn’t look properly like a scintillating quasar and yet it didn’t look like interference either; basically because the interference tended to be a slightly longer period, typically. So your brain’s doing a Fourier transform unconsciously and saying, “This doesn’t look like interference.” So I had a log sheet for each observation and I logged it with a question mark but I think I also logged it in the back of my brain. I think one consequence of a training as a physicist is that you know that things you understand you can recover, things that you don’t understand you file away to be sorted out later. I was conscious of doing this sometimes for exams; things that I understood I knew I could re-create in the exam, things that I didn’t understand I had to learn ‘parrot fashion’ so you approach things you understand and things you don’t understand differently, and this was something I didn’t understand, so it got filed somewhere at the back of my brain. After I had seen this scruff a few times my brain did not do just a single click but a double click, “I’ve seen something like this before somewhere, haven’t I?” “I’ve seen something like this somewhere before and from the same bit of sky, have I not, before?” and when you do that double click and say “the same bit of the sky” all you have to do is go back to the chart recordings that cover the previous bit of sky and say “Yes, there it is.” I had presumed that because it took almost 400 feet of chart paper to survey the sky that you would actually come to each re-survey completely fresh, with no memory of what there had been before. I thought, “This is the perfect experiment,” because there’s so much chart paper for one scan, I won’t recall any of it when I come to the next scan and it will be done again afresh. But actually, your brain recalls more than you would suspect. So after seeing this source a few times, and this must have been about early October, late September, we’d been running for two for three months, I went to Tony and said, “Look Tony, there’s this funny source in the middle of the night that seems to scintillate.” Scintillation is very strongly biased towards daytime sky but Tony wondered if it could be a perfect point source, the ideal point source, which would be very good for calibration of the whole experiment. We decided that what we needed to do was to actually get the equivalent of a photographic enlargement. The chart paper was running too slowly and all the scintillations were jammed up together; it only occupied less than an inch of the chart paper.
But you could see that there was structure there?
You could see that there was some high frequency stuff there, yes, but it was less than an inch of chart paper and you couldn’t really see any structure in it. So, we decided what we had to do was get hold of a high speed chart recorder that went perhaps 20 times the speed and switch over to that when this source was coming through the telescope and get the whole thing spread out. Of course, it was my job as grad student to do that and for the month of November 1967, I went out to the Observatory every day at the appropriate time, switched over the high speed chart recorder and got nothing but receiver noise. The ‘thing’, whatever it was, had disappeared and Tony was understandably very disappointed. He said to me one day, “It was a flare star. It’s been and gone and done it and you’ve missed it!”
Flare stars are just a few minutes.
It depends what kind of nova it is. We didn’t know. We had no clue what it had been. It seemed to be some kind of transient that had gone. Then one day I deliberately skipped going out to the Observatory to go to a very interesting lecture in the center of Cambridge. It was a lecture about ‘ageing’ which has become quite relevant and I can remember a lot of it and next morning when I went out to the Observatory on my regular routine, I saw that that signal had reappeared yesterday and I’d missed it. So I didn’t go back into Cambridge that day, I stayed out at the Observatory hoping that it might be there a second day and it was. When I switched to the high speed pen recorder, you could see a series of pulses coming in and they looked equally spaced. Very difficult dealing with a transit instrument because the Earth turns and that bit of sky is gone. I observed it all the time it was in the beam and then it was gone and you’ve picked up a series of pulses, with a period of one and a bit seconds, you suspect they’re equally spaced, what the hell do you do? I got the chart off the recording and laid it on the floor. By making tick marks along the edge of a bit of paper and sliding a bit of paper along you could see that the pulses were equally spaced, they were at about one and a third seconds. But you’re trained to do some sort of test, what kind of test can you do? The only thing I could think of testing was the time constant of the pen on the pen recorder. So I briefly connected a battery across the pen recorder and removed it and saw the relapse time. It’s a splendid pen recorder, very fast time period, no problems, no effect. So I called up Tony; it was afternoon at this stage and Tony was teaching in an undergraduate laboratory and he was probably dealing with some twit of a Cambridge student who thought his diffraction grating had three lines per inch, and up telephones his twit of a grad student who says, “Tony, you know that signal? It’s a series of pulses, one and one-third seconds apart and it’s nothing to do with the time constant of the pen recorder either.” Tony’s response was quite proper and he said, “Well, that settles it. It has to be man— made.” Because Tony knew what I didn’t know and that was something pulsing one and one-third seconds has to be one and one-third light seconds across maximum and that’s a bit small for a star.
Why didn’t you make that deduction?
I just hadn’t made the connection. But what I did know subconsciously, although I couldn’t articulate it, was that this source kept sidereal time, so it was unlikely to be man— made interference, so I didn’t agree with Tony although I couldn’t produce any arguments instantly. Tony came out to the Observatory the next day at transit time and fortunately for me the source was strong again and another string of pulses came in. So he believed me, which I don’t think he’d really been inclined to do up till then and that started a very anxious period, because for about the next month we were trying to find out what was wrong, what this could possibly be.
So this couldn’t have been a glitch in the system if it was side-real?
Well, you see we hadn’t articulated this initially so we were thinking that there was something wrong. Of course the first thought is, ‘Jocelyn’s connected up this aerial wrongly, she was responsible for the wiring.’ So I had an anxious time while we checked out the antenna. We got Paul Scott and his research student to also observe the object with their 81.5MHz array, the one that’s used for lunar occultation’s, that wasn’t a suitable job for women, the project that I wasn’t on. Four of us, Tony, Paul Scott, myself and Robin Collins, the grad student on that project, congregated out at the Observatory one afternoon a week or so later for the observation of this bit of sky with their equipment and it didn’t appear. Tony and Paul started walking down this very long laboratory saying “Now what is it that shows up in our telescope but doesn’t show up in yours , what’s going on?” and I was pattering along behind them trying to keep up in every sense of the word. Robin stayed by the pen recorders and we got down the far end of this very long laboratory and there was a strangled cry, “Here it is!” We went charging back up the lab; we’d miscalculated when it was due to appear! Fortunately by only five minutes. If we’d got that calculation more wrong, who knows? But that was good. Their instrument wasn’t totally east— west or it was not on horizontal ground or something like that and we had just miscalculated when it would appear. It was also a transit instrument, we had miscalculated when it would go through their beam, and it was as simple as that.
This must bring tremendous feelings back to you?
It was a bad moment when it didn’t appear because it suggested that there was a fault with our equipment and I was the person who had wired it up and my Ph.D. was on the line, it was not just my Ph.D. but probably my whole scientific career. I think I still felt bit of a country bumpkin in Cambridge, I wasn’t a suave southern English person.
Was it an emotional time for you then?
I think it was a very important time. It was a very significant time. Until another radio telescope picked up this signal, we were afraid that it was some fault in our equipment.
And since I had been responsible for the wiring of the whole radio telescope, I was very scared until — well, even more scared at that point when it didn’t appear — that I had done something drastically wrong and I was about to be booted out of Cambridge, no Ph.D. or anything else.
Did you feel you were living on the edge throughout all of this time? That you had to prove yourself?
Yes. With hindsight I can see that part of the Cambridge ambience is a supreme self-confidence I think not always purely justified. But that was inhibiting.
What is this Southern culture you’re talking about?
There is a distinct difference between Southern England and Northern England plus Scotland plus other fringe parts of the United Kingdom. The people from the North and the fringes tend to have an inferiority complex in the face of the Southern English confidence, and in Cambridge there is that par excellence. And I think I was always a little surprised to find myself in Cambridge. I mean, I had never expected to go there. I had only applied just in case while I waiting to go to Australia, so I was always anxious that I was not going to make the grade. And I worked jolly hard as a consequence. And as a consequence of working jolly hard ended up being one of about half a dozen people out of a few hundred grad students they had who got their thesis in the regulation three years. But that moment where it didn’t appear in Paul and Robin’s antenna was dire.
But you knew in the past that it was erratic; that it may not appear on each passage.
It might have been because we already knew a bit about this, the characteristics of these pulses, that we were able to tune Robin and Paul’s system to actually be more sensitive than ours. Because I don’t remember much suggestion. And the other thing that was going on is we were still observing with the 4 1/2 acre, and I think it had transited before, earlier in the day, on it. So we knew what it was doing that day an hour previously. And I guess we must have seen it.
And you didn’t realize that their transit line was not your transit line.
That’s right. That wasn’t my mistake. That was probably Robin, who was asked to do the calculation as the grad student on that project. And it had been wrong. But I just wonder what would have happened if we’d been wrong by much more.
Would they have turned off the equipment?
Yes. We’d have given up, gone back into Cambridge and tried to work out what was wrong with our system.
But it wouldn’t go away.
Yes. But that experiment might not have been repeated. It might have been deemed to have failed.
So it may have been years.
Yes. I don’t quite know what would have happened. It’s interesting.
Is that something you sometimes really do think about a lot?
Well, there are a lot of “ifs” in one’s life, you know, and “if this had happened or this had happened” what we wouldn’t be doing now. And that, with all these tests going on, was one of those “if’ points.
What was your feeling when you heard Robin calling?
It was Robin. Yes. It was relief. Excitement.
Did you run?
Yes. We all ran back. And one of the interesting things was to see whether the pulses looked the same, you know, with another system — how different, how similar. And we must have had to do something with the time constant of Robin’s receiver, because he wasn’t normally observing rapidly fluctuating things, so he probably had some flash up there. But yes, it turned out to be very exciting, having gone through a desperate moment. That was desperate, but that showed that it was not the radio telescope or the receiver. It was external to that.
Were you getting any kind of feelings from Hewish or from the others that you had failed when they were walking down this very long corridor?
It was getting to that, yes. What was also happening around about this time, initially it was Tony Hewish and I. And then we needed some help, so we brought in somebody else. And I think the first people we roped in were Paul and Robin, who then became party to this amazing result, and of course were interested and continued to ask what was going on and offer suggestions about tests we could do and so on. And the group, so to speak, gradually grew, and more and more experienced and powerful Cambridge brains came in on this problem. It wasn’t a fault with the equipment. I had to work very hard to keep up with all these bright ideas that were tumbling in. It was quite a tough time for a grad student. You could get marginalized very easily in that kind of process.
And you certainly didn’t want to be marginalized.
No, I didn’t want to be marginalized. I was hanging in there, but I did also have to keep an eye on a thesis which I had to produce. So I was trying to keep several balls in the air, and it was quite hard work.
Did you ever go to Tony Hewish and say, “Forget the thesis. I want to concentrate on this anomaly”?
Yes. In effect, I did. And Tony informed me I couldn’t, because the thesis title had been registered as “The Angular Diameter of Quasars.” I couldn’t change it at this late stage.
But isn’t that just bureaucracy?
From what I now know of university systems, I believe he was wrong. But I believed him at the time.
Did he believe it?
I don’t know. He was sometimes a bit laid back and inclined to take a course of least action, least effort. I just don’t know. I think he should have known that you could change a thesis title or could have asked some of his more senior colleagues. I had one or two encounters with Tony over the thesis, and that was one of them. He told me the thesis had to be the scintillating quasars, and I had to get on and measure their angular diameters. And because a lot of time was going on the pulsar observations, obviously, this was getting a little tough.
So you’re supposed annoyance at these pulsars, as you expressed in some of these interviews, is just — actually it’s misleading. You were very interested in the pulsars.
Oh, extremely interested, but also very practical. I had at this stage become engaged to be married. My grant money was running out in the fall, and I had a very limited window in which to get a Ph.D.
But you were onto something really potentially important?
But I couldn’t do the thesis on that, apparently.
So I had to do that as well as pull together the thesis.
Did you ever think of appealing to the university?
No, that didn’t occur to me, but something played into my hands rather well. I asked Tony to read the first draft of the first chapter of the thesis, and he agreed, but very reluctantly. Incidentally he read it and said it read more like an after dinner speech than a Cambridge University thesis, and would I mind sobering it up a bit. But he also said he wouldn’t read any more of it; it was my responsibility, this thesis. Until it was done.
But you had to do it.
Looking back at it now, how do you feel about that?
Well, different thesis advisors play things different ways, and that was Tony’s style. At least it was his style with me.
Do you know if he treated others the same way? No one else had such a poignant thing happen to them; such an unexpected turn of events.
What I did notice is when, after that Christmas break, I appeared in the laboratory wearing an engagement ring, many people’s approach to me changed.
In what way?
Well, in those days in Britain married women didn’t have careers. They might work a little bit ‘til the kids came along, and then they stopped work. So this was a signal that I was exiting. And other interesting phenomenon from that time, I found that people were much more willing to congratulate me on my engagement to be married than congratulate me on making a major astrophysical discovery. So I was going, wasn’t I?
Did you start wearing the ring before this fateful night?
Between pulsars number two and three.
The conversation between you and Hewish about your thesis?
That was probably earlier; at least the conversation about the main thrust of the thesis was earlier.
It was earlier, so it had nothing to do with your marriage or your engagement.
And what about your decision to be engaged? Did you know that this was the stigma?
No, I definitely had not at that stage fully appreciated the social pressures that there were on the woman — to get married, or when she was married, or when there were children.
So that was something that you had relatively compartmentalized.
I was naïve. I can remember actually thinking, “Men can have careers and marriages, so why can’t women?” I assumed symmetry.
Pretty reasonable. Today.
It was totally stupid; totally stupid in those days.
Okay, well let’s go back to the point where you didn’t want to be marginalized and carry on. You were continuing to observe, working on your thesis, and you discovered more of these things. What was Tony doing at this time?
Well, Tony was taking quite an interest of course, particularly in the pulsars, and there were ideas coming from various directions about further observations and tests we could do.
But they weren’t called pulsars yet.
No, no. They had various nicknames. The one that stuck was “little green men.” Which is a phrase that was current in Britain in those days to indicate extraterrestrial civilization? And radio astronomers had at the backs of their minds that if anybody made contact with extraterrestrials it probably would be the radio astronomers.
Was this after Hoyle’s A for Andromeda [Harper Collins 1962]? Do you know that book?
I know the book. I’m wondering about the timing. I think it may have been earlier.
Earlier. Because it was definitely after Black Cloud, but that wasn’t radio, I don’t think. [Yes it was]
Yes. We had got stuck on the idea that this couldn’t be a star. That it looked manmade. We had twigged that it moved ‘round with the stars. It kept sidereal time. We had got a very rough estimate of the distance from a dispersion measurement.
Yes, different frequencies.
That’s right. Which we guessed, estimated, pushed it about 200 light years — so well beyond the solar system, but well within the galaxy.
Who came up with that bright idea of using the differential dispersion?
I don’t remember. It might have come from the ionospheric group, Ken Budden’s group. But I don’t honestly remember. We were also at that stage doing some very accurate time— of— arrival measurements to see if there was any Doppler shift. We found a Doppler shift, but it was due to the motion of the Earth and the Sun. Couldn’t find any other Doppler shift. And Tony Hewish has a lovely story of from December the 25th that year. Having found pulsar number two, I went off back to Northern Ireland for Christmas and Tony very kindly kept things running — put paper in the charts and ink in the inkwells — and he tells how he went out to the observatory, ran the fast time recorder to record accurately the time of arrival of some pulsars and was back home in time to carve the traditional turkey. It’s a bit like Thanksgiving in the U.S., but it’s done on December the 25th. So he kept things going, but piled all the charts on my desk for analysis.
Of course. That was expected I would think.
Yes, that’s right.
Speculation about what this was. How did that go? Were you still in the race? Did you feel marginalized?
I had to watch it. And if I tell you about the night I found the second one, it actually illustrates quite a few things. I went down to Tony’s office about four o’clock, five o’clock in the afternoon to talk to him about something, and the door was shut — which is very unusual in that department. So I knocked and he said, “Come in.” I put my head around the door and he said, “Oh, come in, Jocelyn, and shut the door.” So I went in and shut the door. And it was quite a high level meeting. It was Tony, it was Martin Ryle who was head of the group, and another senior radio astronomer — I can’t remember who. And they were actually discussing how to announce this discovery. We didn’t seriously think it was little green men, but we didn’t have a natural hypothesis to put in its place. We actually had very little clue what this thing was at that stage, and we had only one of them. Well, we didn’t resolve the issue that evening, and I went home to get some supper, very disgusted. You know, some silly lot of little green men had chosen my frequency and my antenna to signal to planet Earth, and here was I trying to get a Ph.D. and running out of money and time and blah blah blah.
I think you were annoyed about something else.
Subconsciously I may have been, but I wasn’t articulating that actually. I was just annoyed at the position I found myself in, without time and money to exploit all these things, even half exploit them.
But you had gone to his office unannounced —
Uninvited. And there was a meeting underway that didn’t include you.
Yes. That’s right. So as I say, I was struggling to keep in there. I came back into the lab that evening after supper to do some more of the routine chart analysis and was examining another patch of sky and because scientists may listen to this I’ll say a little bit about what it was. In the UK we are sufficiently far north that Cassiopeia A is circumpolar. Cassiopeia A never sets. Now your radio telescope looks south, but if it has any response northwards it can pick up Cassiopeia A when it’s due north. And our telescope did this and there was a chunk of sky around about 11 hours, 30 minutes, which was often unusable because of Cassiopeia A at lower culmination.
And it’s so intense in the radio.
Yes, that’s right — that it still shines through the back of the telescope [beam] and in amongst all this mess from Cassiopeia A seen through the back of the radio telescope, it looked like there was a bit of a signal like the first pulsar. Scruff. From a totally different bit of sky. It was about ten to ten at night at this point, and the Cavendish laboratory was locked at ten. And you could choose to be locked in or locked out. So very rapidly I got out the other chart recordings that covered that patch of the sky, strew them all over the floor, and saw that there was on occasion, in amongst this mess of lower Cassiopeia A, another of these signals. That signal was due to transit at about three o’clock in the morning, so I got out of the Cavendish lab at about half a minute to ten, before I got locked in, and drove out to the Observatory at two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, to switch to that beam in the fast chart recorder. And it nearly didn’t work. It was extremely cold. It was December the 2 1st, and in cold weather something in the antenna only worked at half power. And it was only at half power when I got out there. But by flicking switches and breathing on it and swearing and praying and cursing and everything I could do, I got it to work for five minutes — and it was the right five minutes, and it was the right beam setting. And in came another string of pulses. That was the good moment. That’s the Eureka point. The first one was just a worry. But finding a second one first of all scotches the little green men idea. There won’t be two lots of little green men on opposite sides of the universe. So that was very sweet. And it also suggested that we were hitting the top of an iceberg of a whole new population.
Yes. I suspected. I knew that instinctively when the second one came.
When the second one came?
Yes. First one, no. It could have been anything. Second one, similar but not identical, a different part of the sky, this must be a new stellar population of some sort or galactic or, you know, astronomical thing. And that was lovely. That was very, very good. So on that instance I piled the charts on Tony’s desk and said, “Look at this, Tony,” and went off on vacation. And of course that helped the publication problem as well, because it’s not little green men, there’s more than one of them. You publish the first one and say, “We’ve found some others.” And the day I came back from Christmas vacation I found another two suspects on the charts, and they were confirmed over the next few weeks.
Finding the suspects means scrutinizing hundreds and hundreds of feet of chart paper.
About three miles.
Was this the same scrutiny that you had to do for your thesis?
Yes. I mean it was part of the thesis scanning. But I came back from vacation, I found these two further suspects. Tony wasn’t around, so I just did some chart analysis. Tony reappeared. At the end of that afternoon I said, “Hey Tony, I think I found another two. And his reaction was, “How many more have you missed? Go back through all your recordings.” And that going back was of course different. It was an extra scan. And no way could feed into the thesis.
And when he said it like that, in what sounds like a negative way to say it, and then asks you to spend this extra time, did the issue of the thesis come up again?
I was in general banging away about my concern about the thesis. Around about that time, maybe two or three weeks after that, I said to him that I wanted to stop observing; that I needed time to analyze the data that was still unanalyzed and write the thesis. And he agreed. And I think at the end of January I stopped observing. I’d need to check that date, but it was somewhere around about there.
How would you check that date? What kind of records do you have?
Back in Britain I have the logbook that I kept. Well, it’s not the logbook. Let me clarify that. The logbooks and all the chart recordings belong [to] the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. And day by day I was writing up what I had done, what I needed to do tomorrow, and you know this kind of thing. But also once a month I wrote up for my own use what we had done that month, what decisions had been taken, why those decisions had been taken, what had elapsed. And I have that monthly logbook in my office in Britain.
When did you start that log?
Pretty early on in my Ph.D.
I can’t answer you, you know, without actually looking at it.
Well, it was prior to the scruff?
Oh, long prior — long, long prior.
This is just something you did.
What I cannot remember is whether I started it partway through the construction or whether I started it at the beginning of the construction. I just don’t recall. But it had been going for probably at least a year before pulsars came along.
Was this also a confrontation with Hewish when he told you to go back through the data?
No. I could see the sense of it.
But with the implication that you missed something.
Well yes. The language was negative. I do recall that. But I could see the sense of what he was saying, and I would feel acutely embarrassed if somebody subsequently found another pulsar in there that I had missed. So for my own satisfaction I actually thought it [made] sense. It was a beastly chore. It was horrible. It’s very hard to do a second scan thoroughly, but I did it. And I didn’t turn up any other candidates, and in fact that radio telescope only ever discovered one more pulsar in the whole of its life.
Well, not entirely, because they doubled the area and Joe Taylor and colleagues used it around about 1997-98 when the Arecibo was being refurbished. And off the air. They used it to do another search with sophisticated computing equipment, and they didn’t find anything other than what was known. It seems that pulsar spectra begin to turn down at those low frequencies. They’re a little bit too low a frequency. But of course we didn’t know that at the time. So I found the first four, and one more subsequently found with that telescope, but no others.
That was it. How did you stay in the game?
I didn’t, in a sense.
Right. Let’s consider. You went home after that meeting they were having that you simply blundered into?
Yes, that’s right. Found the second one that night.
Were there other meetings that you blundered into, or were you ever made part of the deliberations?
I wasn’t aware that there were other meetings. It may not have been sufficiently essential that meetings were needed thereafter — or maybe I just didn’t know about them. But I don’t think there were other meetings.
Was there an announcement? And how was it orchestrated?
We wrote up the first pulsar for publication, sent it to Nature. I think those were the days when the editor refereed all the papers himself. I also remember Martin Ryle calling him up sort of days in advance saying, “We’ve got something very interesting we’re sending to you. Look out for it.” And when the paper had been accepted but a few days before Nature appeared, Tony gave a colloquium in the Cavendish in Cambridge, and we gave it a rather titillating title, you know, “A New Kind of Radio Source,” or something like that. And word began to get around that something very interesting was happening, and people came in from everywhere. And I can remember that quite clearly. I can remember Fred Hoyle sitting in the front row. And at the end of colloquium Fred saying in his Yorkshire accent that, “This is the first I’ve heard about this things, but I don’t think they’ve white dwarves. I think they’re supernova remnants.” In other words, he had taken in the fact that we found these very compact objects. For reasons that I don’t recall why, he almost immediately could say he didn’t think white dwarves were good candidates, but we were dealing with something to do with supernova — which of course is what it turned out to be.
When did you start realizing that it had to be a very compact object?
Fairly quickly. And we fairly quickly ran into a conundrum. Maybe Tony or somebody will have explained to me the significance of the short period and map of a small size. We also started observing these pulses with the fast pen recorder regularly, and that was another of my jobs. And it became very clear that the pulsation period was very accurately maintained — which means the system was not losing energy, which means it had great energy reserves, which means it was big. So it was small and it was big. Yippee. When we refined the statements a bit better of course it all made sense, but it was some time before we did that. But it’s small in the sense of physical dimensions. It’s big in the sense of mass. And of course a massive but very compact object would fit the bill beautifully. It was just that very few people have even dreamed of neutron stars or things with that density — which is why we were struggling so with such an incredible type of object.
Had you read literature in post main sequence stellar evolution?
We were getting to find papers that were useful, yes. John Baldwin, who shared an office with Tony, remembered something about a very compact object in a supernova remnant — I mean, how there might be — and managed to recover the paper. So by the time we wrote up the first paper, we were able to say, “Well, it might be a white dwarf doing radio pulsations, or it might be a neutron star.” We couldn’t distinguish at that stage, but at least we had identified the key players.
Yes. I’m pretty certain. I need to go back and look at the papers, but I think we had those two ideas around by then. [“Observation of a Rapidly Pulsating Radio Source,” Hewish, A.; Bell, S. J.; et al. Nature, Volume 217, Issue 5130, pp. 709-713 (February 1968)].
But this is before Tony Hewish’s colloquium when Hoyle made this statement.
After Hoyle made this statement, what happened?
Everybody went home for supper. Somebody phoned New York. And I remember being incredibly impressed by that, because this was early 1968 and transatlantic telephone calls were not that common. Somebody went straight out of that seminar.
Who did they call in New York?
I don’t know. I don’t recall. I’m not even sure that I was told, but I remember somebody saying somebody called New York.
Where did you feel [you were] in the process of events? Did you just go home to dinner?
I suspect so, I can’t really remember. I can remember the colloquium itself but, being fairly pragmatic, actually I probably went and did some chart analysis or thesis writing or something like that. This would have been February and so I think I had stopped observing but I still had [a] thousand feet backlog of chart analysis which was quite scary.
Was there any question as to who would make the announcement?
No, it was going to be Tony, but I think I had sensed that a contemporary account might not be a bad idea; I said to Tony that I was going to put the pulsars in an appendix. He wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about that but he had already firmly told me this was my thesis and he wasn’t reading it, so I decided I was putting an account of the discovery of pulsars in the appendix, and there [it] is. It was written more from my point of view but still written as a scientific document because I think I sensed it might be useful to have something written, documented.
Now what about your thesis defense? When did that take place?
That took place the following January. I put the thesis in at the end of September. The system is Britain is different. You need a bit of time for the examiners to read it. Tony took great pleasure in not telling me who my external examiner was until the night before. I knew who my internal was because I had been negotiating dates and times with him. In Britain, you do not always know who your external examiner is when you write the thesis, so you cite everybody, just in case!
And who did that turn out to be?
Henry Palmer from Jodrell Bank and Peter Scheuer was the internal. So it was interesting that it was Henry because I knew him. I had stayed in his house when I was a summer student at Jodrell but of course there had been the slightly embarrassing business of my application to Jodrell and he was the person who handled that.
But he had encouraged you?
I can’t remember whether he had or not but someone at the Faculty had, yes.
During this time, a lot was happening with the pulsars. What was your involvement? Were you ever brought in?
No, I had left the group; I had left Cambridge, which is like committing a cardinal sin.
Why did you do that?
To get married.
Well maybe we should talk about that.
I’ve mentioned that I’d got engaged between discovering pulsars numbers two and three. My fiancé had been a Cambridge undergraduate, he’s just a little bit younger than me and he had graduated and gone to a job on the south coast of England.
What is your husband’s full name?
Martin Burnell and we are incidentally no longer married. The marriage fell apart about ten years ago, perhaps no great surprise. He had been a Cambridge undergraduate, had graduated like six months ahead of me and had a job and I had to find a job in that part of England, so I couldn’t stay in Cambridge.
You were sitting on some of the most exciting stuff imaginable.
Yes, but albeit with a radio telescope which is not the best for exploiting it. This is where you need a steerable dish, a transit instrument is too painful and that’s why very little pulsar research was subsequently done in Cambridge. Jodrell does it much, much better.
How did you meet Martin Burnell?
Through Quakers, he’s also a Quaker. So that’s where we met and we said we would not get married until my thesis was in and we got married a few months after that and just before the thesis defense.
Did you have any offers to go to Jodrell Bank or other single dish places? I assume you would have wanted to continue with this work?
I needed to be near where he was, that was the priority. In those days in Britain married women did not work. I was very uncertain about giving up work. I know I assumed that when we had a family I’d give up work. Six weeks after giving birth I realized I’d made a mistake and staying at home with a baby was not me! So my career patterns for the next 20 years were actually governed by his jobs and the fact that we had a child after a bit and I was working part— time while there was a child.
And this is where it gets complicated! I don’t want to leave the pulsars stuff just yet, but I need you to guide me as to where the critical points are in the history of the development of the pulsar model and whether you had anything to do with it.
No, I didn’t.
So that really separated you, once you left Cambridge.
Yes. One of the research projects, not a pulsar one, that I wanted to follow up, was the effect of solar activity on the solar wind and therefore interplanetary scintillation.
Sure, that would have been directly out of your thesis.
Yes, I’d seen evidence of it and I approached Tony about this and he said, “Well actually we’ve just decided that morning to put a post-doc on the project,” so I couldn’t. It was about 5 years before anything came out of that post-doc and project. So it was a complete severance.
He already knew you were getting married and this was just generally a write-off. Did you ever consider not getting married?
No, I don’t think I envisaged that. A bit of me believed that I could be married and have a career and a bit of me knew fine well that women in Britain at that stage who were married didn’t have careers.
A few did. For example, Margaret Burbidge.
Margaret Burbidge, yes. Her career has got hiccups in it as well.
But I’m wondering, was she or anyone else, by this time, a role model for you?
No. One of my great regrets is that there was no role model, and not even a mentor, actually. There were times when I could have done with a good mentor. So I was very much on my own. I was married to a man who expected wives to be at home. He said he didn’t but he actually did!
So you did go in letting him know what your aspirations were. He allowed that to pass? This is not good.
Yes. It didn’t work out very well; I have to say, yes.
When did you know that?
When he walked out to live with another woman, 20 years later.
The first job on your vitae, 1968-1970, is Research Council Fellow, University of Southampton. How did you obtain this position?
Well, I knew before I left Cambridge where Martin was working and therefore what the possible options were for me and the University of Southampton seemed to the best place. I asked Tony if he knew anything about the place and he said “Oh yes, Michael Rycroft works there,” so I contacted Michael Rycroft about what he was doing and what positions he might have. He actually didn’t do astronomy at all, so my first post-doc position was studying the topside of the ionosphere, using data from the Alouette satellite. It wasn’t a terribly good recommendation of Tony’s, to be honest. After two or three years working with Michael Rycroft I felt that there wasn’t a future with this and I moved myself into the gamma-ray astronomy group, which was also in the same department.
Now when you say that it wasn’t a good recommendation; that means his advice was not that good; he could have suggested the gamma-ray group or some other group?
I think it was the first thing that came into his head, it was a bit casual.
Now coming from Cambridge, this being still during the 1960s, were there plenty of jobs around? Was it a sellers’ market?
I tried for two or three things at the University of Southampton and several of them I didn’t get, but I did get that one, so it was only a one in three success rate.
But you managed to land a real job.
Yes, albeit temporary soft money.
Coming from Cambridge, I assume, was helpful?
And what about the recommendations, his advice to others, it must have been pretty good?
The others stayed in Cambridge, to be honest, not many people left Cambridge. It was almost presumed that one would not leave Cambridge.
Yes, that is the case in the sciences.
Yes. You were just moving to the gamma ray group. Now what attracted you to the gamma ray group?
Right. So this is at the University of Southampton, and I wasn’t terribly happy with the way the topside ionosphere work was going. I wasn’t convinced that what was being proposed was sound science, so I decided to move myself. And there was some astronomy going on in Southampton which was gamma ray astronomy; pioneering work in the 1 to 10 MeV bands, which is really tough, because it’s where the cross section is lowest and therefore where it is hardest to capture the gamma rays.
And who was that? Who was leading that group?
It was collaboration between Southampton and the University of Milan in Italy. At Milan the leader was Livio Scarsi and in Southampton it was David Ramsden. And in those days one flew gamma ray detectors on balloons. There were very, very few satellites around. And so we were building a balloon payload with all the crash bars and things around it so that when it came down at the end of the flight it did not get too badly damaged. It was an interesting science.
You have said in the past here that you are not a builder, but did you get back in the building mode, or was there something about it that was attractive to you?
I was more involved in the calibration. I calibrated that gamma ray detector by gluing a small radioactive source to the ceiling of the loading bay and sitting the gamma ray detector beneath it and altering its elevation angle and then seeing how the detections varied with energy and angle and all these different things.
This was 1968 to 1973, this period. You moved from being a Research Council Fellow, which I assume was like a national fellowship —
Was that a competitive fellowship that you applied for?
Yes, I think it was.
Okay. And then you moved to being a teaching fellow in physics.
Was that also your transfer from ionospheric to gamma ray research in 1970?
It was about the same time, yes. I don’t remember the details of the timing, but broadly at the same time. Yes. The teaching fellows were interesting. A lecturing post came free, and the chair of the department divided it into two teaching fellowships.
A regular full time slot but divided to take advantage of younger and less expensive people?
That’s right. Yes. We each had a normal teaching load but half the pay and none of the perks. But it was a good place to start teaching. It was a department that really cared about teaching, and it was very good.
Excellent. And what did you teach?
I did an introductory modern physics course to get all the incoming students up to the same level, and rather more excitingly I did the students’ first quantum mechanics course, which was really challenging. This was where they met quantum mechanics for the first time — which is a really challenging subject to teach, but I really enjoyed it.
These were your first teaching experiences then?
In a big way, yes.
You mentioned about how you liked to explain things to your bunkmates or dorm mates back in school.
Was there a similar feeling carrying over here, or was the relationship different?
It wasn’t very different. I had very good rapport with the students. One or two of them I am still in touch with, and occasionally I get an e-mail saying, “You won’t remember me, but you taught me quantum mechanics in Southampton. I am now working in Hong Kong and last night in a London hotel saw you on television, so I thought I’d send you this e-mail.”
You received the Michelson Medal from the Franklin [Institute], in 1973. Was that with Hewish?
The Michelson Medal was, I think, with Hewish, yes. One of them was. I think it was that one.
Okay. And that was after the Nobel Prize or just about the same time?
No, it was shortly before. The Nobel Prize was ‘74, so it was perhaps twelve months before it.
Because throughout this whole period, pulsars were building.
And you were moving from ionospheric physics to gamma ray.
Did any of your colleagues know what your role was in this? And where were your own feelings and your interests?
Well, I was quite enjoying learning these new branches of astrophysics, but already beginning to discover that there’s quite an overhead when you move into a new area, a new wavelength. So there was a lot of learning and less productivity. Which has been a bit of the story of my life, to be honest, as I’ve moved around? I was enjoying the teaching very much in Southampton and very glad to have had that experience. And again, I was probably a bit uncertain about where I was going, so to speak — you know what my future was going to be.
There was a child.
Yes. Came along in 1973.
That must have changed your life. Did you take the editorship of the Observatory just at that time as well?
Yes, it must have been just about that time. That’s right. And I also started teaching for the Open University, both of which were things I could do from home.
That’s exactly what I was wondering, yes.
So were you still living in Southampton?
We were living on the South Coast, yes. It was actually some distance away from Southampton but on the South Coast, yes. But then my husband moved jobs at the end of ‘73, somewhere like that.
And the next I see is Mullard Space Science Laboratory in 1974.
And then University College London.
That’s right. Yes.
You certainly came to international attention when Tony Hewish got the Nobel Prize.
But what was it like personally for you? Because I heard all of the controversy that we all know. How did that controversy develop? Who were the voices?
I think there was fairly widespread feeling amongst my generation, sort of postdoc generation, that things had been a little bit unfair. And I can remember for instance I was one of the editors of the Observatory magazine. There were four or five editors — I think four of us at that time — and there was a question of whether we should put a note in an issue of the Observatory congratulating Martin Ryle and Tony Hewish. And I was for it, but the other three editors said, wrote, “Nobel = No Bell.”
I haven’t seen that one. Is that in print?
No, no. That was amongst ourselves as we were making decisions.
My God. Nobel = No-Bell
No — space — Bell. Yes.
Who was it that turned that one up?
It was probably Mike Penston, but I’m not a hundred percent sure.
That sounds so British, the humor.
Yes, yes, that’s right.
How did you feel about that?
Well actually, I was very pleased about the Nobel Prize. I can remember the day vividly, because something else happened that day, and if I put this in a novel nobody would believe it. The main project I was to work on at the Mullard Space Science Observatory was an X-raysatellite called Ariel V. This was in the days when Britain could afford its own satellites. You know, it was British Domestic Space Science Program. And that was huge fun to work on and so on.
There were high-energy components to that.
So is this a direct result of your getting into this gamma ray group?
No. This is because my husband moved to a job nearby, and I wrote a begging letter to the director of the Mullard Space Science Lab saying, “Would you have a job for me?” And the job I actually got — although I disguise it on my CV — was on the technical support staff. Which was no problem out at Mullard Space Science Lab, but when I went into University College London to use the library, they said I couldn’t. Technicians couldn’t use the library. Well, the lab wangled me special permission, but you know I was in a pretty lowly status. Well anyway, this satellite launched mid-October from its site off the coast of Kenya. We had a radio linked to the launch site, and we all came into the lab at eight o’clock in the morning and listened to the controllers’ launches, their discussions. And it launched and went through the various stages, and gradually we drifted off back to our offices to work. And then on the midday news program was the announcement about the Nobel Prize. And the wife of one of the faculty heard this, and he came rushing along to my office to relay the news, I think expecting me to blow a fuse. And I didn’t, because I have a strategic sense, a political sense. This was the first time that a Nobel Prize in Physics had gone to anything astro. For the first time astronomy and astrophysics had been brought within the purview of physics. And I saw that as extremely important and nice incidentally those pulsars were part of it. But I wasn’t cross or anything. It did have a slight social effect in the sense that it said to me that, “Men get Nobel Prizes and women stay at home looking after babies,” because I had a wee one by then. So it’s had some consequences for me in my self-understanding, but I was very, very pleased that a Nobel Prize in Physics was going to astronomy.
Well, yes, but — all well and good, but there must have been at least, considering what the reaction of your co-editorsat the observatory was, a pretty swift reaction among those close to you. For instance, how did your husband react to it?
It became really public about six months later, when Fred Hoyle spoke, supposedly in an impromptu manner at a press conference. He managed to remember my married name, which not many people do in impromptu circumstances — so I just wonder how impromptu it was. And he was using the incident to berate some of the Cambridge folk, establishment. So I think it was a convenient issue for him for other reasons.
That’s a very important point. You have always appeared to me to be — from the media side or reading secondary reports — to be very reticent at being publicly taking anything but a positive attitude about it.
And I often wondered whether that was a hundred percent sincere.
I think so. Yes. Yes, I think so.
Okay. But that there could also be an element there that you don’t want to be used.
Well, that’s something one always has to look out for in life — I mean, forever and ever, and particularly when you get a name of some sort. People are always trying to hitch you to their cause. So that’s something I’ve had to learn post-pulsars.
When did you first know that you had a name?
Well, I guess I would not have got the job I got at the Mullard Space Science Lab unless I had had the discovery of pulsars behind me. I think a woman writing a begging letter probably wouldn’t stand much chance at the job, particularly since I wanted to work part time.
But having the pulsars in your Vitae, however you are given credit for it, is something you earned.
It isn’t something that was given to you in any way that I can think of. So — how to say this? That doesn’t afford you an undeserved privilege.
Your name opens doors. It is issue-related. Did you try to avoid that?
I discovered quite quickly that my husband became twitchy at my successes, and I learnt to play them down, certainly at home and probably in other circumstances as well. When my marriage broke up ten years ago, I can see that my profile just went up like the side of a house, because I was free to accept rewards and to do things like broadcasts and things like that.
And you were not free when you were married?
It was more difficult. For example, I did not receive my Ph.D. in person. My husband said we couldn’t afford for me to travel from the South Coast of England to Cambridge for the degree ceremony— which I didn’t actually believe. I think it was more significant that he did not have a Ph.D. And I didn’t have to go in person to receive the degree. I mean, it’s a nice occasion, but you don’t have to go. And it made an honorary degree ceremony in Cambridge a couple of years ago all the more meaningful. It is difficult, because there is still the perception that in a partnership, a marriage, the male is the leader, the dominant, and the women is often there — think of photographs — as the attractive accompaniment. Less often do you see a woman being photographed and her man standing sort of behind her right shoulder? You know, the world is not actually symmetric.
So you feel that you’re being able to take these jobs to accommodate your husband, it was just lucky that you were also a name, someone with a major discovery under her belt, someone who evidently was capable.
Yes. I kept changing wavelength.
That’s right. Is there anything we should cover between Southampton and the move to Mullard dealing with the gamma ray work? Is there any connection there? I think you said there was not.
No, there isn’t, no. The connection was my husband’s career path, not mine.
So the balloon work had nothing to do with getting into Ariel.
No. I mean, it was useful background, as always, but there was no direct link, no.
And you were given a technician slot because that’s just what was available.
Did you ask anyone at Cambridge for — or did you need by that time — references?
I can remember in the begging letter I wrote saying that So— and— So and So— and— So could be approached, you know, “if you want information on the quality of my work.” And I would imagine when I moved to MSSL I would have given one Southampton and one Cambridge — probably Tony Hewish, but maybe Martin Ryle. I don’t quite remember. It was a very — in British terms — a very unorthodox way of getting a job, to write a begging letter.
How did you get the editorship at the Observatory?
Oh, I was invited to do that. There’s a British woman astronomer, Carol Jordan who is just a year or two senior to me. And she had been an editor and was retiring and suggested my name. And it was good, because it was something I could do at home — keep my hand in, you know, while I brought up a family.
That’s right. Now you had one child.
Name, rank, serial number?
Right. A boy called Gavin, Gavin Burnell, who is now age 27 and is a postdoc at the University of Cambridge England, having done his Ph.D. and his first degree in Cambridge. So I’ve seen Cambridge through the eyes of the next generation, which will be interesting.
And what is his area?
Material science, working on some of these tiny junctions. He’s actually working on squids, but it’s the same sort of area.
Yes. That’s certainly right up to the technological forefront.
Yes, it is. He’s much more employable than I am.
At the breakup how old was he?
Did he stay with you?
Yes. . He had about eighteen months to go in high school, so I just stayed put, you know, just let things run where I was. It would have been much easier, much nicer to just get up and go somewhere, but for his sake I just stayed put for those eighteen months.
Then we both left at about the same time.
As an editor of the Observatory, any experiences, anything that you feel is important to know? And that can be about the Observatory, the structure of the journal, of the RAS, or anything.
I don’t think there’s anything particular to say then. It was an interesting experience and broadened my knowledge of astronomy quite a bit more.
During that time the Quarterly Journal was still quite active.
Yes, that’s right. The Observatory was not officially part of the RAS. I was one of the editors responsible for reporting the meetings of the RAS. We had the jobs divided up between us. You know, one liaised with the printer and two of us did the RAS meetings, and one dealt with book reviews and that kind of thing.
Right. So you did have to attend the meetings.
Yes. I actually did this quite deliberately to sort of maintain some visibility. So I was at every RAS meeting except probably the one where the kid was born, but every RAS meeting in that interval.
Well then you were in certainly wonderful tradition, because Eddington was editor as well.
Right. I hadn’t realized that.
At the same time that you took the editorship at the Observatory you became tutor, then consultant, examiner and lecturer, or all of that at once?
Oh, all of it intermixed. I became tutor first, and as they got to know my work they invited me to do one or two consultancies and you know be a guest lecturer and so on.
Okay. Now I may be going over ground at this moment that is very well known in England but is less well known here.
And that is, who are “they”? What is this phenomenon called the Open University, and how did you get involved with it?
Right. The Open University started about 1972, so I was in from very early on. It is an organization that teaches a huge number of students by correspondence. Our students are mature adults in jobs and in the evenings and at weekends they study at home. And we mail out tons of stuff to them. There is a central campus, which is where I now am, in Milton-Keynes in Southern England, but because the students are all over the country there are in addition a fleet of part-time tutors so that each student is assigned to a relatively local tutor for each course that they’re taking. As a tutor I would have twenty-five or thirty students all doing introductory physics or Fourier optics or whatever the course was I was tutoring at that particular time.
And would you meet in a particular place?
Very occasionally we met, and it was not compulsory. There would be during a year perhaps four Saturday mornings where I would run face to face tutorials.
And where would this be physically?
Within a twenty mile radius of where I and all the students lived, with luck.
You were responsible for finding a meeting room?
No, it was set up by the Open University. The exception was when I was tutoring in the North of Scotland. And there the communities are so dispersed that you couldn’t physically meet. But my job was also to answer any queries they had, so I’d get telephone calls saying, “I don’t understand the second page of Chapter 3,” or “I’m absolutely stuck on question 5 of the homework,” or you know, things like that. And I would be grading their homework as well. So I got to know a group of about twenty or thirty students really very well, and was full of admiration for the obstacles they overcame in order to study.
Working people; Regular working people.
Working people, yes.
Trying to better them, trying to expand their horizons.
Yes. That’s right.
Was there something about these programs that appealed to you in it, or were you trying simply to remain active, make money, whatever?
It wasn’t a good way to make money that was for sure. But it was a good way to keep my brain in gear. And that was very important to me, and that was my prime motive. When I did decide I had to go back to work, however, I found that I couldn’t give up this tutoring. I enjoyed it too much. I enjoyed the teaching, and they were so highly motivated students they were huge fun to teach.
Well, you remained in that position from ‘73 to ‘87.
So that is in parallel with being at Mullard —
Yes, and Royal Observatory Edinburgh. Then laterally at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. I was traveling too much and away from home quite a lot and so felt I couldn’t honor my obligation to the students.
So there was that period between ‘87 and ‘91 —
That’s right, where I wasn’t doing much work at the Open University. Yes.
How would you then characterize your work at Mullard, then? You started as a Graduate Programmer. This is the technical position?
This is the technical, yes.
And you were already well beyond your degree by then. You had obtained the Michelson Medal?
Yes, or about then, yes.
That’s right. You got quite a bit of recognition.
How did you feel about this? Or was it just the practical situation that you found yourself in?
It was a very exciting place to work and a particularly exciting time. Ariel V turned out to be successful beyond our wildest expectations. I was the person running it for the laboratory, so I checked the quick look data and monitored the health of the instruments and all that kind of thing and was really caught up in all the excitement. And I can remember saying things like, “I wish this satellite would stop making discoveries until we process the last five.” It seemed that every holiday, every special holiday — you know, like Memorial Day and Labor Day — something in the X-ray sky went “pop” and of course the satellite saw it, and a mad runaround to reschedule things and get people to look at the data, and it was hugely exciting. And I learned to jump fast.
But Ariel wasn’t strictly a mapping instrument.
It had about half a dozen instruments on it. Steve Holt at Goddard had a mapping instrument. Leicester had a mapping instrument on it in a slightly different energy range [led by] Ken Pounds. And there was our spectrometer and there was our x-ray instrument that was really too small in collecting area and a rotation modulation collimator which was probably about 10 years ahead of its time, it was a little difficult to operate. I was involved with the spectrometer mainly.
But my impression is that it did not have the sensitivity that Uhuru had a few years later.
Uhuru was earlier. I think it had more, actually. We had great problems with some of the Uhuru sources. Some of the high Galactic latitude sources in Uhuru turned out not to be real and I can remember this vividly, having scheduled the satellite to look at this one and this one and this one and none of them were there.
That’s where it was different; you could actually look at things.
Yes, that’s right. So that was a very exciting time, a very busy time.
And your primary responsibility was maintaining the spectrometer or the entire system?
The spectrometer. The entire system was run by a Government lab with whom I liaised.
And you were working for whom at that time?
Well, I was working for the Mullard Space Science Lab, whose head was Professor Robert Boyd.
Who was the P1 on the spectrometer?
I think it might have been Pete Sanford but these kinds of things were a bit lost once it was operational, they were more meaningful during the construction phase.
And you weren’t in that part, I take it?
No, I arrived at Mullard Space Science Lab about six months before the launch.
Was this a job for you? Were you thinking career at all?
No, I was not thinking career, I was thinking succession of jobs. I was actually quite pleased even to have a job. I had had about 10 months out of work between when the kid had been born and we got moved house and settled and I got the job at Mullard Space Science Lab. Actually, my morale was very low as a result of those months out of work and I was actually quite glad to be going as a support person, at that level, it was a good way to get back in.
And you saw yourself trying to get back in, that is “into the game”?
Yes, because I had decided that I couldn’t do it, being full-time at home.
This is after about six weeks of being at home. What was it that was intolerable?
Well, I was missing the kind of conversations that you have in academic environments, coffee breaks and things like that and you’re very isolated as a mother with a small child, particularly if you don’t have a car. You may have a lovely house but you’re stuck there.
Kids were not taken to work?
No, there wasn’t even maternity leave when I was pregnant. I can remember my neighbors, particularly the women saying to me, “Look, you’ve got a husband, a new house and a new baby and you say you’re bored? What’s wrong with you?” Absolute assumption that you did not work, and that you were fulfilled by being housewife, wife and mother. So I actually had a lot of trouble finding child-minding facilities as well and that was one of the reasons that I worked part-time because I was not totally happy with the child-minding arrangements and didn’t want it to be all day.
Would there have been different parts of England, different university towns where that might have been different?
Yes, there will have been some gradations across the country, that’s certainly true. I think you’re right to suggest that places like university towns might have been more forward looking than others in that respect, I think that’s true.
Now your husband had a career path, is this true?
And how would you describe his own career aspirations, how strong they were and how much of a career did he have?
I would say he was fairly ambitious. He worked in Local Government as a Personnel Officer and if you stay where you are, you gradually move up the ranks but if you want to progress faster, you apply for jobs elsewhere to get you up the ranks quicker, and that’s what he was doing. So every five or ten years, we would move on as he moved to a new Local Authority, a new bit of the country.
And you accepted this, this was something that was just part of reality for you?
It was part of what I had married into, yes.
And you knew this?
At one level, probably not totally. I didn’t know what my own reactions would be to having a family, for instance and I don’t think any woman can know; it’s only when the hormones have done their raging that you really know whether you want to be at home with this baby all the time, or whether it’s the last you want to do, I don’t think you can tell in advance.
Now, you stayed at Mullard until ‘82 and from there you moved to Edinburgh and that I take it as a result of your husband’s job?
What did he move to in Edinburgh?
He actually moved to an Authority to the north of Edinburgh, a region called Fyfe, to work with the Fyfe Regional Authority, as a Personnel Officer, so we lived to the north of Edinburgh and he commuted in one direction and I commuted in the other direction.
Now each time he moved, did you accept the fact that it was a better position for him? Was it needed or sometimes was it capricious?
We had an arrangement that when he began to feel that it was time he would move, he’d start scanning the adverts looking for jobs and he’d say to me, “There’s a job going in such and such an area — if I moved there would there be any anywhere you could work?” and I would say yes or no, depending on whether there was any Astronomy Department within commuting distance, so I had a power of veto over where he went. I did, yes.
Well, that’s better than what it could have been.
That’s a good deal better than what it could have been, yes, that’s right. But I was still always in the position of applying for a job at the wrong time for the wrong reasons, you know, begging for a job basically, which puts you in a slightly weaker position.
Was there any consideration that he might sacrifice some of his upward mobility for permanency for you?
Yes, our next move was going to be for my job and it’s maybe no coincidence that that’s when he bailed out! Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was this other woman.
Right. Now you must have done more than Ariel V in the years that you were at Mullard.
Not a lot more because it ran for six or seven years and it was pouring out data, it was hugely successful; really one of the golden oldies, now, but it wasn’t quite what I did all the time. It hadn’t launched when I first went there and I was computer programmer for a rocket-borne x-ray detector that had launched shortly before I joined the place, they already had the data and I helped with the data analysis of that. Towards the end, well even though the satellite had stopped operating, there was still a lot of data to be mopped up and I can remember doing a catalogue of all the Ariel V spectra for example. We tidied up that data pretty well, actually. I didn’t do much else at MSSL except run that satellite and tell people that their data had been taken; find people to handle the latest transient exciting source.
Did you ever re-live the feelings that you obviously had with the pulsars, when something new would happen from one of the detectors and you wanted to be part of it?
It was a little difficult actually, being in that kind of service role, but more and more people in the laboratory began to include me in their papers. This is actually a slightly dicey thing because the rules of the Research Council, whose grant was supporting me, was that I was non-creative, whatever that means! I wasn’t supposed to be doing papers. But more and more I had my name on papers and played a bigger part in writing them and so on; particularly when the satellite re-entered and there was no running of it to be done, then I was free to plunder the database. I was very well placed to know what had been done properly and what hadn’t been done, so that was good.
What problems attracted you particularly?
I noticed that nobody was doing globular clusters, it was just a sort of niche that no-one had occupied so I learnt a lot about globular clusters and the sources that we were observing, in those, for example. We were also doing things as I’ve already mentioned, like a catalogue of spectra. One of the very interesting things that I and an Italian guy that I worked with a lot and very successfully [did] [was to look at] a number of very short transient events that nobody had searched for, or examined. So we went into the database and we picked out all the very short transients. I think there were probably over a hundred different kinds of things in there and a hundred different transients but it was fascinating to do because it was an area [of] phase space that people hadn’t looked at.
In this particular phase space, what are the coordinates?
Short temporal, and that’s directly following from pulsar-type work.
You must have been attuned to that.
Yes. Interestingly, I got also involved in the discovery of the first rapid x-raypulsator. A colleague in my office had the data and he found that it was varying on a timescale of about 10 minutes and he asked me what I thought it was and I didn’t have much clue, so I phoned all the colleagues I knew from the Observatory and previous jobs and said, “What do know about that oscillates on a timescale of 10 minutes?” and they said, ‘Hmm, only really your neutron stars!”
Your neutron stars? Who said that?
I think that was one of the co-editors of The Observatory.
So they were very sympathetic to this.
Yes, and it turned out that it was a neutron star and we found more and more of them with that satellite.
When Tom Gold came up with his model, which was pretty quickly, did you have any contact with him? How did you feel about it?
I didn’t have any contact with him. I can remember the lunch time conversation that day. I was at Southampton by then and a group of physicists always sat together at lunch time and one of them said, slightly sniffily, “Huh! He’s just put down on paper what all the rest of us have done on backs of envelopes.”
Is that true?
Yes. But as always, he or she who writes the paper gets the recognition. We all know that’s the way the world works.
And why didn’t you write the paper?
I don’t know that I’d done the sum but I know some of my colleagues at Southampton had.
They could have?
Oh yes, I think they probably had.
And so why didn’t they publish?
Maybe they didn’t think it was big enough to be worth it.
It was really quite surprising how quickly Tommy Gold came up with that. I mean, he was not at the meeting with Hoyle; he was not there.
No, that’s correct. No, it must have been quite a few months later.
It has to be.
It has to be. Right. I remember people remarking that here was a problem that was solved very rapidly, as opposed to quasars.
Yes. That’s right. The nature of the pulsar was solved, although there are still huge problems about for instance how they radiate, so that there is a lot unsolved even now at thirty years on.
Did you ever want to get back into that?
It has remained my first love always. Perhaps I should qualify what I mean by “it,” “it” being neutron stars. Not necessarily pulsars. I am working right now on exotic X-ray binary system, Cygnus X-3 that probably contains a neutron star, maybe contains a black hole. And since I have been at the Open University and in charge of my own life so to speak, I have been able to do research on what I wanted and have gone back to this with great glee and built up a group around me that works in closely related areas. So that’s been great.
I know I am trying to linearize your very non-linear career, which is not right. And what I want you to do is argue me out of it.
There is an arrow of time through all this, isn’t there?
And it’s getting into the gamma ray stuff and then doing Ariel V.
Was there another place you could have applied that was not high-energy work, high-energy astrophysics?
There was nowhere else near there within commuting distance.
So it really — it wasn’t a choice of topic. It was really just a choice of availability.
Yes. That’s right.
Would you say it was nice the way it worked out, that you had then this history in the high-energy realm because that’s where you observe the neutron stars?
Well, remember that after Mullard I went to Royal Observatory Edinburgh, where they did infrared millimeter.
So I haven’t always been high energy. It’s been quite a few discontinuous moves, but always within astronomy, fortunately.
That certainly is a discontinuous move, to Edinburgh. I forgot about that period. Maybe we should talk just a bit about that before we go to the Open University. How would you typify your work there and, again, how did you get the job?
Well, I got the job by writing a begging letter, in the usual way. And I had to take a 20 percent cut in salary as a consequence. Gradually, worked my way up that organization, as I had done in each previous organization. This of course was outside academia. This is a Research Council establishment running telescopes in Australia and Hawaii for university astronomers to use. There was a little bit of research time, but not really a lot. And my main job at Edinburgh was running part of the James Clarke Maxwell telescope organization. I had two interesting aspects to the job. One was the international liaison, because the telescope is owned jointly by The Netherlands, Canada, Hawaii and Britain, and I traveled around all those countries, talking about the telescope and encouraging people to use it. And I was also responsible for commissioning instrumentation for the telescope — which was rather more of a nightmare, because its frequency range where the instrumentation is very difficult although improving rapidly, but still very much cutting edge stuff.
This is in the 2 micron range?
I do it in gigahertz, which is what is confusing.
Ah, you’re a physicist.
Two hundred, three hundred gigahertz, so millimeter/sub-millimeter wavelengths.
Yes. So that was a management job, and I learned a lot about management and enjoyed it and got training in management — all of which I value very much, but I’m conscious that my academic colleagues don’t put much value on that kind of stuff.
But you’ve gotten a string of awards.
Starting in ‘78 with the Oppenheimer Award and the Beatrice Tinsley Prize and the Herschel Medal, the Jansky Medal in ‘95. I have not been able to prepare enough for this interview to know what the citations say, but you must have been doing something right.
Well, all of it is recognition of the discovery of pulsars. What people say after that, about my career after that, is always very interesting, and people will talk about the teaching I have done and the work I have done for the women in science and the public appreciation of science. Very rarely do they cite a management job at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.
Okay. Yes. So that’s how you would typify most of those awards and honors.
Yes, I would think so, yes.
But being a Fellow of the Institute of Physics is different?
Yes, that’s a professional society, yes, an honorary position, actually being elected a Fellow.
Yes, that’s right.
It’s like our National Academy of Sciences.
Yes, but not quite so grand. I don’t know for instance whether the American Physical Society has Fellows — or AIP even. I don’t know.
Okay. So then they all do reflect the pulsar work.
Yes. And some of them include other things, like women in science or public education or teaching physics and astronomy.
So you do have recognition for teaching.
I suspect so. I haven’t actually checked the certificates very carefully.
Well I’m just wondering if it’s commensurate with your effort in teaching.
No. Recognition of teaching is never commensurate with the effort that goes into it.
Well let’s move then to the Open University. You went back to the Open University.
And how was that choice made?
Well, that was almost as if it was meant to happen, given the timing. My husband had left; I was effectively single again, because my son was going off to college. I was in Edinburgh, but for the first time in my life free to go after a job because of what it was, not where it was, and the Open University advertised the chair of physics — chair of the department.
Which is a very significant type of position in Britain I should say, as opposed to here.
It’s an interesting position, because the Open University was, is still regarded as something a bit new and experimental. It’s a different kind of university.
I meant a professorship.
Oh right, yes. That made me a professor for the first time, and in Britain that is a very limited cadre of people. Indeed, my appointment as professor doubled the number of female professors of physics in the country, and there’ll be something like 150 or 200 professors of physics.
Does this mean that there are no professors of astrophysics or astronomy who are women?
There are now, but I don’t think there were any then.
Okay. That’s saying something right there.
Now, was that part of the choice of going to the university, Open University, that the professorship, the chair was available?
Yes. I had great affection for the Open University from the years I have been tutoring. It’s become quite a big social force in Britain. In any one year, 10 percent of all the people graduating are Open University people. We’re really big. So you are having quite a big influence, being on the central faculty of such a university. I also recognized that the department was badly in need of some sort of uplift. It had had the same person as chair for about twenty years. He was very conscientious, but I think he was getting a bit tired. The last new appointment had been fifteen years previously.
Did this physics department exist as a regular physics department, doing research with facilities?
No. The previous chair of department had not been interested in research. He was interested in the teaching. There were some people in the department interested in research, and they were having quite a rough time. And I saw it as part of my brief to get the department doing research again.
I take it you were interviewed for this kind of a position.
Was this part of your statement?
No, it couldn’t be, because the previous chair was on the interview panel.
So politically you couldn’t do that.
I said things, “And I shall be looking out for signs of middle age in this young organization,” you know, sort of hinting things like that to show what way I [was] thinking. But I couldn’t say what I knew, which was, you know, “This department desperately needs an uplift.” It would just not have gone down well with the current chair of department.
Okay. And I take it there was competition for this position.
Do you know what your competition was like?
I knew a bit about it. The internal candidates very generously declared themselves to me very promptly and said, “Great,” you know, “We’ll be perfectly happy,” which was very generous of them, and I know of a few other people who had applied.
Were they also research oriented?
They were both. And that’s the interesting thing about the Open University. Much more than any other British university, it has to combine an interest in teaching with an interest in research. Got to keep the two in much better balance than many a university does, because the teaching has to be absolutely excellent if it is to work at a distance.
And how did you think you were right for that type of job?
Well, over the years the feedback I had got from my lecturing and teaching was that I was a very good teacher. I was also keen that the place should do research, and I felt that there were other parts of science faculty, science division, that would agree with that that were distressed that physics was not doing that.
Was your argument that you would be a better teacher as a researcher?
Yes, I think you are. I think particularly if you are teaching a subject like astronomy that’s evolving very fast, you’ve actually got to keep up with it. And I don’t know that we’ve always done that well enough.
That’s teaching at the graduate level and undergraduate?
There are graduate students, but remember we don’t do graduate schools in the same way in Britain.
So we have graduate students doing research, and we have undergraduates being taught, so to speak. So it felt very right to apply for that job and move there when they offered it me. And it’s good. It also brought me back to the south part of England. I have learnt that to be visible you also need to be reasonably close to London. And although Edinburgh is a beautiful place and a very exciting place, it is a big far from a lot of the center of action.
London means different things to different people. I didn’t think astronomy or physics was one of them.
Um, yes. Well, it’s where the Royal Astronomical Society meets you know.
Sure. At any time did you ever get any job offers that were unsolicited by you?
Yes, I was head-hunted by the Vatican Observatory, which amused me immensely. It was at one point that I couldn’t go, and I’m not sure that importing a female Quaker because you’re short of male Jesuits is actually the right thing to do. I was amused.
When was that, and was that O’Connell or McCarthy?
It was one of their minions. I think I had better not name him, because he might just not have been working with their authority. I did wonder it was such a bizarre approach.
When was it approximately?
I was in Edinburgh at the time.
Okay. So that was well along.
But this was before your separation of course?
Yes. So no way could I have [moved].
Would you have done it if it was after? That would have been a change.
Yes, it certainly would have been a change. But they’re predominantly optical astronomers. And that’s one wavelength I have very little experience of, so it might not have been a good idea. I’ve been approached by other people saying, “Would you be interested in,” but it wasn’t actually a job offer; it was more, “Would you consider applying for.” I have had a number of those, and actually only followed up one or two.
But once you made this major shift then to the Open University and became professor in the department, how did that then change your visibility and your sense of self, what your mission was? Did you then start plotting out a course for yourself?
Yes, in fact I’d actually had to plot out a course much — not much, but before that. I mean basically when my husband left, I was left with egg on my face in a big way, having compromised my career to his and then being so to speak abandoned. A marriage is two people actually.
Absolutely. But did he make accusations of why he was leaving related to your working or anything like that?
No. There was another woman. A younger woman — whom I think is significant — with a career which wouldn’t threaten his.
Okay. And you took it as egg on your face.
Well, strategically speaking I did have egg on my face. I was in a part-time job but it was in a place where I felt it was time I moved on.
Did you have any friends or any people that you could confide in and just unload your anger?
Yes, I had a very good flat mate, a person with whom I shared an apartment that final year in Cambridge. She was terrific. She was interesting. She was a mature student doing theology, and we would talk alternatively about who wrote the books of the Bible and what the latest theories of cosmology were over supper at night. It was very stimulating.
And what was her name?
Janet Smith, now Janet Nightingale. She is active, alive, but with a condition that has a death sentence at the end of it. So we don’t know how long for.
That’s awful. I’m sorry to hear it. But she might be the kind of person that a biographer would like to talk to.
Right. I think she would be very good at that. She has done that kind of role before sometimes with a TV company that’s recreating the story or something like that. So, she knows the story, and she lived it with me.
Later on did she remain your confidante throughout, even at Edinburgh?
No, I had other friends in the Edinburgh area that I was quite close to.
These were people who were local and you didn’t correspond with them.
I’ve kept up a correspondence with a large number of people, but at any one time I would tend to be talking more with whoever was the most local of my friends.
Oh, of course. If they’re available and local. But sometimes writing out your feelings and your view of things— just as you said you kept a notebook.
Did you keep diaries through all of this?
No, I didn’t. I had that logbook at Cambridge, but nothing else actually. There have been one or two special events where I kept a diary, like in 1993 Joe Taylor invited me to be his guest at the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, and I kept a diary of that week, you know, which you just wouldn’t believe you had remembered accurately unless you had a diary.
That’s very nice to know. And you have these diaries.
I have that one certainly, yes. And I went on a visit to the Soviet Union as part of the delegation from the British Churches just a couple of weeks after Chernobyl went up. I have a diary of that visit. So for special events I have kept a diary. I was part of the subgroup that was designated to go to Kiev, and the Foreign Office said “don’t.”
So we stayed in the Moscow area.
Exactly. Okay. It’s an interesting preamble though to the Open University period, which is ongoing in your life now.
The question is, who could act as your emotional vent, somebody that you could simply talk to, express your feelings. And anyone who would be using this interview at some time in the future would want to probably know those kinds of contacts. Right. Okay. Well, when I was in Edinburgh Christine Davis, who is a fellow Quaker, and Liz Sim, who was also at the Observatory at the same time as I was. They were probably the people that I used most for support. The time at MSSL what did I do? I’m not sure I can remember. Well, there was Christine Davis then also actually. Known her many, many years, even though she wasn’t local. I think probably when I was at Mullard Space Science Lab, because the child was small I actually had very limited time for myself, and I probably was not sustaining many friendships at that stage, you know, outside the marriage.
Sometimes when you have a very local friend who also has a kid—
Yes, you can do that.
Did you ever have that sort of situation?
Yes. Across the road where we lived there was a woman with two boys — one my son’s age and one a bit younger. And she and I — her name is Valerie Orr she and I got on very well together.
Okay. That could be quite helpful in the future. Let’s finish up with the Open University, which is an ongoing thing.
Normally of course you know I interview people at retirement, but I take it you’re not too close to that.
Oh, it’s only about seven or eight years. Which is, you know, I’m beginning to think my next job is my last one.
But when you took the job and became the second woman to have a professorship in Britain, you must have drawn some attention.
In two ways: first, because of being the second woman; but second, you were in the job market and you were free. You were back in the game; you were the first time in your life a free agent.
Did you look for alternatives or did you even consider them and were they made available to you?
Yes. I got approached for instance by an Oxford college asking if I would be its head. Anyway, head of an Oxford college. And I went and met with them and then withdrew when it got to the formal interview stage because I thought there were still things I wanted to do at the Open University; didn’t feel I had completed turning the department around. I think I have now achieved that, to my great delight.
How did you do it?
Well, I learnt fairly quickly that you can’t change people. People who had given up their research fifteen years ago under pressure of teaching and because they enjoyed teaching were not so likely to take up research again. But they were quite happy for me to graft on some new research activities. And so I have developed an astrophysics group in the department. Indeed the department has just recently renamed itself physics and astronomy, as opposed to physics, in recognition of that. And whereas when I arrived there were perhaps about three people doing research in astronomy at the Open University, there are now about thirty.
And are they all at Milton-Keynes?
No, they are not all. Some of them are part-time grad students working at home. But it’s a sizable group now, and it’s lively and it’s flourishing, and I think it’s basically going to save the department.
That’s just terrific.
It’s really terrific. It’s cost me a hell of a lot.
In what? In time? energy?
Time and energy, yes. The university went through a major financial crisis at one point which nearly sunk us, you know, just at our most vulnerable stage.
That’s what you mean by saying “save”?
Now what are the criteria, say? Money that you bring in? Students? What?
A combination of both. Numbers of students and money that you bring in, versus the amount that’s spent on faculty salaries. That’s the sum, but they broadly do.
Is there tracking of where the students go and what they do?
Yes, there is, but of course a lot of them are in jobs already, and so they just continue. But some of them use their degree to get promotion; some of them use their degree to change field; some of them are retired and doing it for interest.
But for the ones who are in a job, is it an astronomical job that they typically are in and they are trying to get a terminal degree? I can see that for material sciences, I can see that for architecture, I can see that for a lot of areas; but it’s kind of hard to see astronomy in industry or whatever.
Yes. That’s right. Well, there isn’t an astronomy degree as such. There are astronomy modules that you can take, and they are very popular — far more popular than the straight physics modules, it has to be said.
Do they satisfy the same breadth requirements basically?
There aren’t breadth requirements. The students can mix and match to their hearts’ delight. It’s only if they want a degree that says “Bachelor of Science in Physics” that they have to do a certain stream of courses. And a number of people, by the time they get to thirty-five or forty, whereas they think it would be useful to have a degree, it is less important what the degree is in; it’s just the mere being a graduate. It is the status that counts. Because they already have skills and experience from their ongoing job. So some of the students will, as I say, mix and match in a most amazing manner.
I know that was true in the state colleges where I taught for a good while in Connecticut. Getting a terminal degree was very important for advancement.
Yes. But they are people with jobs. They were already, you know, fairly well on in their careers. We have found that employers are hugely impressed by people doing Open University degrees. And they will employ people whether they have completed their degree or not, because just the discipline and the motivation and the time organization demonstrated by even getting three credits, let alone twelve credits, says so much about what kind of person this is. So Open University students, let alone graduates, are very well regarded in UK.
What is the income for the Open University? Where does the Open University derive its support?
Ninety-five percent of its income is from the government, and it’s so much per head of student that we teach.
So it is the number of students.
That’s driving it. It’s, I think, rather too big a fraction, because our vice chancellor, our president is a bit inclined to say, “Well, research only brings in 5 percent. Let’s not bother about that.” So 95 percent of our income is the teaching income, because we have 180,000 students.
That’s quite a bit.
Have you become a spokesman for the Open University? Or do you find that you are a spokesman for astronomy, or is it a combination? And how do you think of yourself?
Right. I understand from the Open University press office that I am the person that for instance photographs are most frequently requested for. So they label me as their most famous member of faculty. So I do a certain amount under that head, and some of it I do not do very deliberately. I just have “Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Open University,” and that’s you know all the credit the Open University needs or gets. I think I am rather more a spokesperson for women in science, or indeed women. I do quite a lot of that.
Are you comfortable in that role?
I have become so.
Was it in a way thrust on you?
It probably was thrust on me initially, but once I had time to think a bit and articulate in particular what it was I had to say and what it was that had to be said, I’m quite comfortable in that role. It’s frustrating because you don’t get anywhere, but that’s another issue.
How would you typify how you became a spokesman for women and women in science? If you were asked to describe in 100 words or less, how would you describe it?
I think it really took off when I became Professor of Physics at the Open University. The OU Press Office played this “doubling the number of women professors of Physics.”
Ah, okay, I have seen that statement in several places. Did you think this would be one of the consequences of your taking the Open University position?
I suspected it might be. I had been on the fringes of some women’s things in Edinburgh, previously, and my eyes were beginning to get opened, quite remarkably, it was not surprise.
Was there any part of this in your visiting appointment in Princeton?
Yes, I think there’s a bit of it because they are desperately short of women in the Physics Department, women Faculty, I think that certainly was an issue but it was probably rather more that they’d heard and seen me speak and knew what style of teacher I was, because it’s a teaching appointment.
Well, of course, you were at Southampton and I imagine you’ve taught at other many places but this experience at Princeton, would you mark this as a milestone in your career? A new experience, new opportunities, new horizons?
Well, I haven’t yet got enough long sight on it but I have been very conscious that for the first time probably since I left Southampton I have been an ordinary academic; I have had very little management responsibility, I have one committee. I’ve been teaching, I’ve been doing research, I’ve been interacting with students; I’ve done one or two other things like take a group of students to Broadway to see Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, things like that, so it’s been very, very good. How I fit it into the career pattern, I don’t know, because it was an unexpected opportunity that I grabbed at. They came to me and I thought, “I can’t turn this up; if the Open University will give me leave, I’m going.” I guess now, over the next few months as I go back to England, I’ve got to start and try to fit the jigsaw together.
Well, you’re still Professor at the Open University, certainly. Let’s end it here as a “Work in Progress.” Before we finish, is there anything that I’ve not covered, that I have missed, that you’d like to go back and re-emphasize or change in perspective in anyway, something that I haven’t asked you about the pulsars?
I don’t think there is. It seems to me we’ve covered the ground pretty thoroughly and I’ve taken up a lot of your time!
It’s been wonderful, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for your time. For the tape, what is your mailing address please?
In Britain it’s: Department of Physics and Astronomy; The Open University; Walton Hall; Milton Keynes; MK7; 6AA; United Kingdom; Present Address (2010); Astrophysics; University of Oxford; Denys Wilkinson Building; Kedle Road; Oxford OX1 3RH, UK.