Weekly Bulletin
December 6, 1999
Vol. 89, No. 11
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Page one news and features
Physics for all mind-sets
Campaign reaches goal; important needs remain
Miss New Jersey

Four professors join tenured faculty
Trustees appoint 14 assistant professors
Honored: William Lockwood, McCarter Theatre's special programming director
Color of Success: Third World Center welcomed Afeni Shakur
Obituaries of retired employees

Nassau Notes
Holiday volunteers opportunities


Physics for all mind-sets

By Ken Howard

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (c) demonstrates how bodies rotate in space for Julia Comerford '02 (l), Ilana Witten '02 and Michal Orlikowski '03. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)


Anyone meeting with Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching, is apt to learn something about her special area of expertise -- pulsars -- even if they were just stopping by for a chat.

She might happen to mention, for instance, that the amount of energy used to pick up a newspaper is a million times more energy than a radio telescope receives from all known pulsars in a year. Or that the material in a pulsar is so dense that a thimble-full would weigh as much as all of humanity, or about six billion people. Pulsars, Bell Burnell explains, are the remains of a star after it has exploded.

Bell Burnell, who is chair of the physics department at the Open University, Great Britain's largest university, is teaching at Princeton for a year. She loves to impart knowledge, and she has a knack for doing so to people of all mind-sets, from middle-aged telecommuting students to elementary-school children to Ivy Leaguers. Her efforts to educate extend to e-mail correspondence with 11 year olds about pulsars and reaching out to the general public through the annual Edinburgh International Science Festival, which she has helped organize for several years.

Wife, mother, scientist

Part of Bell Burnell's ease with teaching to a variety of audiences may stem from what she describes as her "not conventional academic career." After receiving her undergraduate degree in physics from Glasgow University and her doctorate in radio astronomy from Cambridge in 1968, she balanced being a wife, mother and scientist in Britain during a time when there were very few women scientists.

She followed her husband to his various nonacademic posts and provided primary care for their child, while also finding jobs for herself -- fellowships, teaching and project management positions (many part-time) at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College, London and at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.

In addition to holding research fellowships, Bell Burnell served as astronomer in charge of the Royal Observatory Visitor Centre and head of the Observatory Publicity Office; project manager of the EDISON project, which was testing economical ways to maintain optimum temperatures on satellites; and head of the British section of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope located on Hawaii (which she was required to visit several times a year and where, in addition to her more scientific duties, she grew to love papayas and pineapples).

Pulsar discovery

Though her career track has been somewhat serpentine, Bell Burnell's research results included an early bull's-eye. While still a graduate student at Cambridge, she was part of the team that made the very first discovery of pulsars, finding the first four with their radio telescope. Searching the sky with a radio telescope, which detects radiation produced by stars and galaxies, her research team got a surprise. "We picked up some curious, inexplicable signals, something we didn't expect," says Bell Burnell. "We thought something was wrong."

She checked the radio telescope's wiring for flaws, but it checked out clean. She then analyzed possible sources of interference from cars and a nearby radio station, but determined that the signals had not come from them. After careful assessment of the pulses of radio emissions being picked up by the radio telescope, Bell Burnell and her team realized they had found something new. By analyzing the pat-terns of radio emissions, they realized the signals were from stars at the end of their lives, and they named them pulsars, for PULsating radio stARS.

The discovery eventually led to a 1974 Nobel prize for Bell Burnell's supervisor, Anthony Hewish. Today, she points out, science is seen as more collaborative, and shared Nobel prizes are more common. Since then, Bell Burnell has been the recipient of a number of prizes herself, including the J.R. Oppenheimer Prize, the Michelson Medal awarded by the Franklin Institute, the Tinsley Prize given by American Astronomical Society for "especially innovative research" and the Royal Astonomical Society's Herschel Medal.

"I was 24 when we discovered pulsars," Bell Burnell says. "It made a very dramatic end to my doctoral studies. I get cross when people say 'What are you going to discover next?' Very few people make that kind of discovery."

Real live students

In 1991, finished with child rearing and an established researcher and academic administrator, Bell Burnell joined the Open University as a physics professor, and one year later she become chair of the department.

The sociology of science in Britain has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, she says. "A lot of things are coming to me now because I am a woman." While this is gratifying in some ways, it has its drawbacks. For instance, "There are very few senior women to serve on committees, so those of us who do are working double-time."

At Princeton this year, Bell Burnell is able to teach and do research without the administrative duties and committee obligations of a department head. Her classes include an advanced physics course on Classical Mechanics and a freshman seminar titled "We Are Made of Star Stuff!" (referring to the celestial origins of atoms). "It's delight-ful," she says. "I'm enjoying being an ordinary academic."

She also enjoys "being in a resi-dential university with real live students to lecture to." At the Open University the majority of students are tele- commuters, who tend to be older and to hold jobs in addition to attending classes. She also finds that Princeton students offer a different perspective than their British peers. "In Britain you specialize sooner, so a US student may know less in depth than a comparable student in Britain but be broader in his or her knowledge."

Hooked on astronomy

Bell Burnell still corresponds by e-mail with elementary and high school students who have sought her out for projects on women in science. She responds not only to their questions about being a woman in science but also to let them know about pulsars and her current research into strange radio waves being sent out in pulses by a star in the constellation Cygnus.

She can empathize with their perspective, she says. "I got hooked on astronomy as a teenager from my father's books from the libraries, books about stars and galaxies. As a teenager, you don't have a good feel for how able you are. I didn't know if I could do it, but I did."

And this is an idea she tries to instill in all her students.