The Radio Wave Mystery That Changed Astronomy : Short Wave In 1967 Jocelyn Bell Burnell made a discovery that revolutionized the field of astronomy. She detected the radio signals emitted by certain dying stars called pulsars. Today, Jocelyn's story. Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber talks to Jocelyn about her winding career, her discovery and how pulsars are pushing forward the field of astronomy today.

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The Radio Wave Mystery That Changed Astronomy

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


Jocelyn Bell Burnell knows that in space, just as in life, nothing lasts forever.

JOCELYN BELL BURNELL: Bigger stars, at the end of their life, explode dramatically. They usually brighten up. They kick out a whole lot of gas and stuff into space, and the core gets kicked against, gets compressed, get shrunk right down.

BARBER: Massive stars, more than 20 times bigger than our sun, eventually collapse into black holes, infinitely small points of immense mass that we can't directly see. Then there are smaller stars, still bigger than our sun, that don't fully collapse into black holes.

BELL BURNELL: They're known as neutron stars because they're largely composed of one of the fundamental particles that we call neutrons.

BARBER: Those neutrons - they were created when the pressure from the explosion compressed the protons and electrons so tightly together, they combined.

BELL BURNELL: And so the core of the star becomes a ball that's about 10 miles across, typically, and spinning very rapidly, a bit like the ice skater pulling her arms in spins faster.

BARBER: A chunk of a neutron star the size of just a sugar cube would weigh a billion tons on Earth or - no big deal - about the weight of a mountain. And because of that compression, these stars have much stronger magnetic fields.

BELL BURNELL: The strong magnetic field keeps the charged particles constrained, and having lots of energetic, charged particles confined to a small volume and whizzing around like fury will likely give you radio waves.

BARBER: Which is a good thing because....

BELL BURNELL: Very, very few of them shine light. So when we don't see them that way, we see them through the radio waves that they give out.

BARBER: These radio waves shoot out of the magnetic poles of some of these neutron stars as they spin. And on Earth, you'll only detect the radio waves if they happen to sweep across our planet like the beam of a lighthouse.

BELL BURNELL: You only see them if they shine in your face or into your radio telescope.

BARBER: It looks like a pulse. That's why these particular stars are called pulsars.

BELL BURNELL: Pulsar is an abbreviation for pulsating radio star. I'm Jocelyn Bell Burnell. I discovered the first pulsar in 1967 and the second one and the third and fourth in 1968.

BARBER: Today on the show, Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell's story - how her astronomical discovery revolutionized an entire field of science. I'm Regina Barber, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

Jocelyn was just a teenager when astronomy took root.

BELL BURNELL: The real eureka moment for me was I was reading a book by Fred Hoyle where he was talking about these big galaxies, you know, 100,000 million stars. And Fred Hoyle in this book was talking about how these galaxies rotate, spin about their center. And we're learning about this in school, and Fred's talking about these galaxies with stars rotating. And what keeps them going around in a circle and not flying off into space? Wow, I like this physics. I could be an astronomer and do this for a job.

BARBER: Life was just a blank page for her to fill in.

BELL BURNELL: And then somebody pointed out to me the obvious. Astronomers work at night. And as a teenager, in fact, even still now, I'm useless if I stay up all night. I thought, oh I can't be an astronomer. I can't work at night.

BARBER: That is, until she found a kind of astronomy she could do in the daytime - radio astronomy.

BELL BURNELL: Because the sun doesn't dominate the radio sky the way it dominates the light sky.

BARBER: So with a bachelor's degree in physics and a desire to be a daytime astronomer, Jocelyn starts graduate school at Cambridge, where she helps build the radio telescope that she used to detect the first pulsar, although, at the time, that's not what she was looking for.

BELL BURNELL: I am the person operating this radio telescope, looking for radio waves from stars and galaxies, particularly quasars, out there in space. I can't honestly remember what the definition was at the time I started, except that they were intriguing and mysterious.

BARBER: At the time, astronomers had only ever detected about 20 of these elusive quasars.

BELL BURNELL: And I got the number up from 20 to 200. We now know that they're galaxy-mass things, but they have a huge black hole in their center, which really dominates their behavior in many, many ways. And we probably know of thousands by now.

BARBER: So Jocelyn searches for these quasars by detecting radio waves with this telescope. Basically, some of the light from distant stars reaches us as radio waves, and these antennae on the radio telescope focus those waves. The receiver detects those signals and turns them into data points on a page that look kind of like the marks on a polygraph.

BELL BURNELL: But in amongst all the data, there's a little signal that doesn't make sense. And the first couple of times I see it, I log it with a question mark and - (with echo) doesn't make sense - pass on. You know, there's real work to be done.

BARBER: And as one of the only women, she was very concerned about proving she was capable of that real work.

BELL BURNELL: I found Cambridge, when I was a grad student, really quite scary. Everybody there seemed terribly clever, terribly confident, and I was quite sure they'd made a mistake admitting me. So I'm working very, very hard and thoroughly to justify my place there.

BARBER: But as she's collecting data, Jocelyn saw that odd signal again.

BELL BURNELL: (With echo) Question mark.

BARBER: And she recognized it. So she goes back to her miles of paper data and finds another signal...

BELL BURNELL: (With echo) Question mark.

BARBER: ...That doesn't make sense. And another.

BELL BURNELL: (With echo) Question mark. And I got five or six sightings of this thing, all from the same bit of sky. And that implies it's something astronomical. You're probably aware that the constellations you see in the night sky in summer are different from the constellations in winter. That's because the stars go around in 23 hours, 56 minutes, not 24 hours. Well, this funny squiggle, whatever it was, was keeping to the 23 hour, 56 minute pattern. So it was keeping its place amongst the constellations, whatever it was.

BARBER: But the pulses occupied only about a quarter of an inch on the paper. When she showed it to her thesis advisor, Antony Hewish, he said she needed to enlarge it.

BELL BURNELL: And the way you get an enlargement is to run the paper faster underneath the pen, and it all gets spread out - an enlargement. So I had to go out to the observatory at the time this thing was due to be observed, switch over to high-speed chart recordings. And I did it for a month, and nothing happened, and my thesis advisor was livid. You know, it's been and gone and done it, and you've missed it.

BARBER: But she kept at it. And finally, she detected pulses again, this time in a string.

BELL BURNELL: One and a third seconds apart. And I went to the trouble of actually telephoning him to tell him the news, and he was rather disbelieving. But he came out the next day, stood as I wired up for this special observation check, that I was doing everything properly. And bless it, it performed again, and he saw it with his own eyes. And we could see immediately it's pulsing at the same rate as yesterday. For something to keep pulsing steadily, it has to be big. But it also had quite sharp pulses, which meant it was small. So that was our conundrum, along with, what the heck could it be, and why is it going at this very fast rate of 1 1/3 seconds?

BARBER: Antony Hewish presented the data to an audience of scientists. The data lit up the scientific community, and other researchers switched gears, looking for more evidence of these pulsating radio waves. Soon, scientists concluded that the radio waves the telescope was picking up were from a neutron star's pulse. And so when spinning, they might sweep the radio waves across Earth.


BARBER: The discovery of pulsars amounted to a 1974 Nobel Prize in physics for Antony Hewish, which he split with astronomer Martin Ryle, who hugely advanced the sensitivity of telescopes.


BARBER: After Jocelyn made her landmark discovery, she married Martin Burnell, and her career took a turn.

BELL BURNELL: At that time, there wasn't any way of keeping my maiden name, so I lost that, as well, and kind of lost my scientific reputation. And I married a person who had to move every five or 10 years because of their job. And so my, quote, "career" - note the inverted commas - has been really, really peculiar.

BARBER: Peculiar because with each move, she looked for a new astronomy job.

BELL BURNELL: I was begging for a job at the nearest astronomy place to where my husband was about to go and work, and quite often got the kind of jobs you get when you go begging.

BARBER: And so the work wasn't always in radio astronomy, the field where she made her name - unmarried.

BELL BURNELL: But it's actually worked out quite well. My curriculum vitae doesn't look too wonderful, but I have had huge fun working in many, many branches of astronomy, often landing in a new branch of astronomy just as it was about to boom. And I'm known for my work in several wavelengths. So, OK, I can live with that.

BARBER: Today, pulsars allow astronomers to measure cosmic distances, look for gravitational waves and search for planets beyond our solar system.

BELL BURNELL: The legacy - it's been a huge help to me, through a rather difficult career, that I've had the discovery of pulsars under my belt. Our understanding of the universe keeps evolving. Clearly, pulsars are one key component of that. There's a lot more work to do on pulsars, and I think there's plenty more unexpected things to trip over if you keep your eyes open.

BARBER: Jocelyn Bell Burnell celebrated her 79th birthday recently. From everyone at SHORT WAVE, happy birthday, Jocelyn.


BARBER: Thanks, as always, to you listeners for tuning in. And we asked you for some of your favorite space facts.

LISA LATEU: This is Lisa Lateu (ph) in Kyle, Texas. My favorite space fact is that it takes about three days to get from the earth to the moon in a human spacecraft. I use that to help me imagine how much further away it is to other destinations.

ROTEM: Hi. This is Rotem (ph) from Pittsburgh, Pa. My favorite space fact is that Venus orbits around the sun faster than it rotates around its own axis. So a Venusian day is longer than a Venusian year. That's the kind of three-day weekend I can totally get behind.


BARBER: This episode was produced by Berly McCoy, edited by Rebecca Ramirez and fact checked by Rachel Carlson. The audio engineer was Natasha Branch. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Regina Barber. Join us again tomorrow for more SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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