Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Women in Science

In 1967 Jocelyn Bell was working on her PhD in astrophysics at Cambridge University when she detected a series of radio pulses with a regular period of about 1.3 seconds. At first it was thought that they might be man-made, or even an indication of extra-terrestrial intelligence, but later it was shown that they originated from a type of rotating neutron star which was subsequently dubbed a 'pulsar'.

Despite the fact that her supervisor, Dr. Antony Hewish, was originally sceptical of the pulsar idea (believing the radio waves were terrestrial in origin), and although Bell made the initial discovery and constructed much of the radio telescope and associated equipment herself (over a two year period), when the findings were published she was only listed as the fifth author. Subsequently, in 1974, when the significance of the discovery was fully appreciated, Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics together with his colleague, Dr. Martin Ryle (the first time it was awarded for an astronomical observation). Bell's contribution was largely ignored and she was excluded from the award.

In recent years this has been seen as a prime example of the struggle that women researchers face to gain recognition in the male-dominated world of academic science. Even at the time, the lack of recognition she received was somewhat controversial. Reknowned astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, for example, strongly condemned the Nobel Awards Committee for overlooking her (he was also always critical of the way scientific study was carried out at Cambridge, where he was a student and taught for a time). Bell herself felt she had been snubbed and, in addition, she was later forced out of full time research after the birth of her first child.

She worked hard to overcome the prejudice she perceived, and from 1973 onwards she worked as a tutor, examiner and lecturer at the Open University, in the UK. She was appointed professor in 1991 and went on to work as a visiting professor at Princeton University, becoming President of the Institute of Physics in 2010 (the first woman to hold that position). She is outspoken about the treatment of women in the scientific community and has become a spokesperson for the issue. In the interview below she gives her thoughts on these issues. Interestingly she feels there is a cultural component to the prejudice which is specific to English-speaking countries:


The experiences of Jocelyn Bell were not without precedent, and much is still to be done to achieve true equality in the scientific workplace. The most celebrated, and in some ways the most tragic, case is that of Rosalind Franklin.

While James Watson and Francis Crick were working to elucidate the structure (and, subsequently, the function) of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, Franklin was doing similar work at King's College, London. Some of her results were given to Crick and Watson without her permission and they used them to build their famous DNA model and win the race to solve perhaps the greatest puzzle in modern science. Crick, Watson and Franklin's supervisor, Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology (there is no prize for biology) in 1962, and Franklin's contribution was largely forgotten. She died of ovarian cancer in 1958 as a result of exposure to radiation during her research. Watson was famously dismissive of her in early editions of his book, The Double Helix:A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Atheneum, New York, 1968), although he did try to correct this to a degree in later editions. Franklin's story has been portrayed in a number of biographies (most notably Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox, Harper Collins, London, 2002) and in a film, Life Story.

Rosalind Franklin

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