Jocelyn Bell: “Around pulsars, time slows down”

When i was a child, Jocelyn bell he failed an exam and was given to understand that science was not his thing. Just over a decade later, sitting at the infinite sheet of paper that collected the signals from the Cambridge University radio telescope, I discovered pulsars.

These neutron stars that release radio waves at regular intervals are still his great passion. For its discovery, Bell is today recognized as one of the most influential scientists from the UK and one of the world’s leading astrophysicists. His has been a life with almost as many barriers to overcome as there have been achievements, in which he has combined his research work with the fight for equality.

At almost 80 years old, he continues to transmit the passion for astronomy and his enthusiasm for science wherever he goes. She attends us from her home, early, while she serves a cup of coffee. “I should be awake by now, but I still need coffee,” she excuses herself.

Bell on the radio telescope signals

– It’s just been 54 years since you discovered the first pulsar. What was the first thing that crossed your mind when you detected that radio signal?

I knew it had to be something astronomical. One of the difficulties of radio astronomy is that many times what we detect is interference. But in this case I knew it had to be something that came from the stars. It appeared once and then returned after 23 hours and 56 minutes, which is the time it takes for stars to reappear at a certain point in the sky. It was something that was out there, but what?

– In fact, he christened the sign as Little Green Men, Little Green Men (LGM) in English. Did you ever think that it was something artificial?

We gave it the name as a joke, but we did have to verify that the signal did not originate from an extraterrestrial technology. We assumed that if these little green men lived on a planet circling a sun, when its world was closer to ours, the detected pulses would have to be perceived closer together due to the Doppler effect. And when the planet moved away, the opposite would happen.

We looked for those signs of the Doppler effect and therefore that the origin could be something alien on a planet, but we found nothing.

– A shame.

Well, I don’t think it was a shame. It was more of a relief. [Risas]

“When I came to the University of Glasgow to do a Physics degree, I was the only girl in a class of 50 students.”

– A few years later, in 1974, his thesis supervisor at the time of the discovery, Antony Hewish, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in the discovery of pulsars. Why do you think they left you behind? Did being a woman or being a young student have something to do with it?

Both reasons probably had something to do with it. But I think, above all, it was because I was a student. At that time, the Nobel Prize was always won by a senior researcher. The fact that she was also a woman It could have had some weight in the decision, but I think it was, above all, because I was still studying for my doctorate.

– Did you get to talk to this about Hewish?

No the truth is no. After my PhD I dropped out of Cambridge University, so I was no longer working there when the Nobel failed. Since then, I’ve only met Tony a couple of times in my life and we don’t talk about it. I couldn’t say we’re in close contact.

Jocelyn Bell at the radio telescope

– She is a great activist for gender equality. What barriers did you experience throughout your life as a woman?

Many, the truth. The first that I remember clearly I found it when I was 11 years old. In the UK an examination was then taken to decide whether boys and girls were best suited for a theoretical or academic career or a practical career. Since it was assumed that girls were more developed than boys at that age, our tests were more demanding. So I could notice those gender barriers right away. [Bell suspendió aquel examen].

– Did all these barriers disappear over time?

Rather than disappear, they identify themselves better. When I came to the University of Glasgow to do my undergraduate degree in Physics, I was the only girl in a class of 50 students. There were very few women in these kinds of careers back then. Throughout my life, I was the first or of the first women in many things. The first to preside over the Institute of Physics From United Kingdom. The first to chair the Royal Society of Edinburgh [la academia de ciencias y letras de Escocia].

“If you are a woman, you will not end up being a good scientist if you only learn to look pretty and wear pink.”

– When he arrived in Glasgow and Cambridge, he always comments that he felt a strong impostor syndrome, he felt that he did not deserve to be there. Why do you think this continues to happen with many women today?

It is a very human reaction when faced with big decisions in challenging environments. This reaction is multiplied when you are the only woman or one of the few in that environment. But, from what I have heard, it is also quite common among journalists. You suffer from imposter syndrome when you have to face a complicated item.

– The truth is that that feeling is always there.

It is the challenge and the feeling of being ready or not for it that causes the impostor syndrome.

– In 2018, she received the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and allocated the prize money, three million dollars, to help women, minorities and other underrepresented groups in the Physics career. What are the reasons behind the gender gap in some sciences?

I think it has a lot to do with cultural reasons, with the way we raise boys and girls. I don’t know what it’s like in Spain, but a typical UK toy store has a pretty, pink, princess-filled section for girls and a much more educational section for boys.

You can also see it in advertising. The toy ads for girls they use words like pretty, artist, or magic. Ads for kids talk about development, building, fighting. There is a very marked gender gap already in childhood. If you are a woman, you will not end up being a good scientist if you only learn to look pretty and wear pink.

– Cultural change is not easy. How do we close the gap?

It is not an easy change, but there are things that can be done as a child. Here we have different groups such as the Girl Guides that, in collaboration with the Physics Institute, have created a medal that says “I am a physicist”. Girls have to carry out some kind of experiment or research to earn that reward. It may seem like a small thing, but thousands of girls in the UK have earned their “I am a physicist” medal and they are closer to the experimental sciences.

– As a child, she grew up in a Quaker environment, a religious community of which she is still an active part. How important was it to your values ​​of equality?

Quakers defend equality between boys and girls, they usually give them the same opportunities and the same education. As a child, I did not just receive home teachings. It was an environment in which I felt comfortable and was able to thrive growing up. I think that, in my particular case, it was an environment that suited my temperament perfectly.

‘We are using pulsars to test the laws of physics. And Einstein is almost always right, by the way.

– It may be too personal a question, but how does religion and science fit in?

There are a fairly reasonable number of scientists who are religious people and each one has their reasons and their own ways of answering this question. In my case, religion and science fit together because the Quakers don’t tell you what to believe, they don’t have an absolute truth, they tell you that you have to find the answers yourself. And that fits the mindset of a scientist

representation of a pulsar

– Going back to pulsars. Since its discovery, we have found many others. What do we know about them today?

We know its characteristics much better [hay más de 2000 púlsares catalogados]. There are some that rotate much faster on their axis than those I found and then slow down over time, like us. But above all, we are using them to test the laws of physics. For example, we have a couple of pulsars orbiting themselves and, observing them, we verify some of the aspects of the Theory of Relativity or that of Gravity. And Einstein is almost always right, by the way.

– Pulsars are so dense that they distort spacetime in a very obvious way. What does this mean?

They occur after the collapse of a star. There, instead of having atoms with a nucleus and electrons around them, the electrons become part of the nucleus and the size of the atom is reduced. It’s like all the matter of the star is concentrated in a body much smaller and denser. There, gravity is so strong that time slows down and we can see the light bending around it.

“It is more than proven that a diverse team, with people of different genders and cultures, is going to be more successful in solving a problem than a group made up of similar people.”

– Planets have also been found around these pulsars. How could they have survived this collapse process?

We have no answer to that question. There are hypotheses, yes. Perhaps the planets have been drawn into their orbit after the pulsar formed. Or perhaps the planet managed to survive this intense process by simple chance. But we don’t know. Nor is it that we have found many examples, truth be told. It is a rare phenomenon from what we have seen.

– When someone spends their whole life observing such distant phenomena, the oddities of the universe, how do they see problems such as discrimination or inequality back on Earth?

They are things that cannot be separated. Even when we observe the stars, we are working as a team. And in these groups, diversity is fundamental. It is more than proven that a diverse team, with people from different genders and culturesIf you are able to work together, you will be more successful in solving a problem than a group made up of similar people.

The variety of experiences and knowledge makes it more likely find the best approach to solve the problem and find the answer. It is a much more difficult group to manage, but with a greater chance of success.

In Nobbot | Eva Villaver (Center for Astrobiology): “Studying other stars and planets, anthropocentrism slips through our fingers”

Images | Jocelyn Bell, NASA

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Jocelyn Bell: “Around pulsars, time slows down”