Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part II: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

This is the second of a series of posts examining gender bias in science, with a focus on historical examples of women who made important scientific contributions to key discoveries, but who unfortunately found the credit for these discoveries was given to their male peers.  We are focusing on women who were denied science's highest and most famous honor, the Nobel Prize.  In a previous post, we talked about general issues related to women in science and we looked at the example of Lise Meitner, the woman who co-discovered nuclear fission but saw both the credit and a Nobel Prize for the discovery go to her male colleague, Otto Hahn.

Today, we'll discuss some of the flaws associated with the award structure of the Noble Prize and also focus on a more recent important woman scientist, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist who discovered a type of star called a pulsar.  While she didn't get the Nobel Prize she deserved, she nonetheless has had an impressive career and has been an important advocate for women in science.

Painting of Alfred Nobel by Emil Österman
The Nobel Prize: A Legacy of Controversy

The Nobel Prize was created in 1901 after the death of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor, chemist, and engineer who had amassed a large fortune from his invention, manufacture, and sale of armaments like cannons and explosives such as dynamite.  After a lifetime of selling and profiting from instruments of death, Alfred Nobel wanted to leave the world a better legacy, which may seem a bit ironic.  Thus, his will established the creation of an endowment to fund the awarding of prizes in various scientific categories as well as in literature and diplomacy (the peace prize).  His will stated that these should be given to "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." Nobel wanted to reward those to had an important impact in  fields that he thought were of paramount importance.  He wrote in his will that these funds should be annually distributed as follows:        

...one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. 

Alfred Nobel
With the addition of the category of economics added later in 1969, we thus ended up with the categories of Nobel Prizes that we still have today.  Since their inception in 1901, the Nobel Prizes in each category are given to no more than 3 individuals at once, and they are never given posthumously (after death).  Despite Nobel's will suggesting that the prize should go to the person who did the most good during the "preceding year," often Nobel Prizes are awarded many years after the discoveries they actually recognize.           

While the Noble Prize is the most famous and arguably prestigious award given to scientists, there has been  controversy surrounding the awarding of the prizes since their beginning, largely due to the 3-person award limit.  In the highly collaborative field of science, the Nobel Prize exemplifies a "winner take all" attitude that often the ignores the contributions of one or more scientists who may have contributed to these critical advancements.

A 1975 editorial in the journal Nature argued that the Nobel Prize should be completely abolished for three main reasons.  The first is that there are not enough spots on the prize to appropriately credit enough people for each discovery.  Secondly, Nobel Prizes are not awarded in every scientific field, creating the idea that some fields are more important than others.  Many great astronomers, like Edwin Hubble, had no chance to be awarded a Noble Prize, because the Nobel committee did not recognize astronomy as a branch of physics until after Hubble's death in 1953.  Thirdly, the Nature editorial argues that the award places too much credit for these discoveries on the recipients.  Science, after all, is not done in a vacuum.

However, other scientists have used these same faults as rationale to suggest expanding the number of Nobel Prizes as well as the number of scientists to whom they are awarded.  Many people believe that the Nobel Prize remains essential to science, because the high public visibility and renown of the Nobel Prize increases public awareness of scientific research and its benefits.  

"For Whomever Has Will Be Given More" (Credit Often Goes to the Boss)

Many of the scientific discoveries that have been used as rationale to awarded the Noble Prize were actually made by armies of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and technicians who worked in the laboratories of the awardees over many years.  It is natural that the credit for discoveries like this goes to the person who is supposed to be in charge and directs the long-term project, particularly when only 3 people can receive the award.  Many Nobel laureates are very gracious in thanking their colleagues and students during their acceptance speeches and are more than happy to share the "credit."  However, many other Nobel laureates succumb to pettiness and greed and are only too happy to accept sole credit for things that they didn't do alone.
In general, the Nobel prize places sole credit on senior scientists and more-or-less ignores the contributions of lower-level scientists due to space limitations.  However, there are also more clear and specific examples of students who definitely should have been put on the Noble Prize but weren't.  These students clearly made an equal or greater contribution to the discovery than the senior scientists who were awarded the prize.  This is particularly evident when the prize is given to only one or two individuals, and thus the argument can't be made that there was a "lack of room" for more names on the prize. 

Selman Waksman in 1953
For example, in 1952, Selman Waksman received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine after the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin.  Streptomycin was the first antibiotic that was successfully used to treat tuberculosis.   In reality, though, it was Waksman's graduate student, Albert Schatz, who discovered streptomycin while working alone late at night in a basement laboratory.  Waksman refused to credit Schatz as co-discoverer of streptomycin, despite evidence that it was really Schatz's discovery.   The Noble Prize committee simply responded that they had never heard of Schaltz and awarded the prize to Waksman.  This was partly because Waksman never mentioned Schatz's name when he lectured about the discovery of streptomycin.  Waksman even went so far as to hide Schaltz's notebook and claim they had been stolen so that he could hide the proof that it was Schaltz's discovery.  Waksman began to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from a patent that Rutgers University filed on the manufacture and use of streptomycin.  This eventually led to Schaltz suing Waksman and Rutgers University for taking credit for the discovery, resulting in an out-of-court settlement that not only led to financial compensation but also forced Waksman and Rutgers to admit that Schaltz was the co-discoverer of streptomycin. 

Today, it is the standard policy of the Nobel Committee to seal all records pertaining to Nobel Prize decisions for 50 years.  Thus, many of the scientists controversially left off of the prize may never live long enough to know exactly why, if that information is even written in the Nobel Committee's records.           

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of Pulsars

One of the more recent and famous examples of a student who failed to get appropriate credit from the Nobel committee comes from the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics given for the discovery of pulsars.  Because the then-student was female, this story also fits into our theme of women getting left out of the Nobel Prize awarding.   

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1943.  She fell in love with physics and astronomy at a young age, and studied physics at the University of Glasgow.  She faced gender discrimination in many of her classes.  She was the only woman at the university who studied physics, and has been quoted as saying:

There was a tradition among the students that when a female walked into a lecture theatre all the guys stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk. And I faced that for every class I walked into for my last two years

A modern day radio telescope used by NASA
Nonetheless, she went to graduate school and received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1969, where she worked on building and using radio telescopes to study stars.  Stars emit light as well as other types of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves.  Radio telescopes can be used to discover and track stars and their movements in the sky by detecting these radio waves as well as detecting the direction from which the radio waves are coming.     

In 1967, while going through reams of data put out by the chart-recorder she was using to track a groups of stars, she noted something she referred to as a "bit of scruff" on the page.  Bell had the sole responsibility of monitoring and operating the radio telescope she was working on, which she has also built.  She regularly scanned through over 90 feet of paper charts per night.  However, when she started to look more closely at this "scruff," she noticed that her chart recorder was picking up a radio signal that was pulsing regularly at about 1.33 seconds between pulses.  This was later discovered to be a type of rotating neutron star emitting a beam of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves.  We now call this type of star a "pulsar" for "pulsating star."  The radiation beam emitted from pulsars can only be detected from earth when the beam is facing toward earth.  Think of a pulsar as a lighthouse, which you can only see during the times when the rotating light beam is facing you.  The rotations of pulsars are very regular, and the resulting pulses they emit have a pattern that can be used to distinguish the signal of one pulsar from another.       

NASA diagram of pulsar rotation and beam geometry.
When Bell Burnell and her  adviser, Antony Hewish, examined the data, they were puzzled by the repeating source of radiation that they were detecting.  Initially, so it has been said, Hewish was skeptical, but he became convinced as Bell Burnell repeated her observations and as they ruled out man-made sources of interference and other known astronomical phenomenon.  They couldn't figure it out, and they half-jokingly and half-seriously  nicknamed the pulsar LGM-1 for "little green men."  While this may seem a bit comical now, at that time with the current knowledge they had hand, the discovery of the first pulsar was probably the most suggestive evidence for extraterrestrial life that man has ever encountered.  A repeating radio signal sounds like just the kind of thing that a civilization would send out into space to try to signal to other civilizations in the universe.     

However, once a second pulsar was detected, they began rule out the idea the signal was coming from an alien civilization.  More pulsars began to be found by other groups, and soon many radio telescopes around world were looking for pulsars and finding them.  It was a very important discovery in the field of astronomy.  Pulsar research is still a very active field today.  In the initial paper describing pulsars (published in Nature), Antony Hewish's name was listed as the first author while Jocelyn Bell Burnell's name was listed as the second author.   

As a result of the impact of the  development of radio telescopes and the discovery of pulsars, Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1974.   Hewish and Ryle were the first astronomers to ever win this award.  Ryle's contribution was recognized because he was the inventor and developer of the first radio telescope systems, the technology used to discover the pulsars, and he did help Hewish and Bell Burnell to interpret their data.  However, the credit for the actual discovery of the pulsars went solely to Hewish.

While no one questions the important contributions of Hewish and Ryle, the omission of Bell Burnell, particularly when there was an open slot for another person to share the prize, has been the subject of an enormous amount of controversy over the years.  This omission was very vocally condemned by another famous astronomer, Fred Hoyle.  Some speculate that Fred Hoyle's vocal objections led partly to Hoyle himself being left off of the 1983 Nobel Prize for physics.  We don't really know that for sure, though.  Fred Hoyle made important astrophysical discoveries, but also proposed some kooky ideas, like the correlation of flu epidemics with sun spot variations, that may have also kept his name off of the Nobel Prize.  However, like all human institutions, the Nobel Prize award committees are subject to the same human flaws and are certainly not beyond pettiness and politics, so Hoyle's own omission may have indeed been payback for his criticism of Bell Burnell's omission.              

Despite the nearly universally-accepted conclusion that the omission of Bell Burnell from the Nobel Prize was a horrendous error, she herself has remained quite gracious and dignified about the whole affair.  She has refused throughout her subsequent career to make any vocal objections to the decision of the Nobel committee.  She became one of the most respected astrophysicists in the UK, held many teaching and research posts, and became the first women president of the Institute for Physics.  Throughout her career, she remained a tireless advocate for women and science.     

She made some famous remarks about the Nobel Prize experience in an after dinner speech at the 8th Annual Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics:     

Jocelyn Bell Burnell at a conference
It has been suggested that I should have had a part in the Nobel Prize awarded to Tony Hewish for the discovery of pulsars. There are several comments that I would like to make on this: First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it — after all, I am in good company, am I not!   Link to this interview.

We may never know whether the omission of Bell Burnell was truly an example of the Matthew Effect (the tendency to give credit for a scientific discovery to the more senior or famous members of the group of discoverers) or the Matilda Effect (the tendency to give credit for a scientific discovery to the male members of a groups of discoverers), both of which we discussed in the previous blog post in this series.  However, Bell Burnell herself has been quoted as saying:

In those days, it was believed that science was done, driven by great men . . . And that these men had a fleet of minions under them who did their every bidding, and did not think.                

It may be that the Nobel committee assumed that her contribution was minimal either because she was a student or because she was a woman.  We may never know. 

The Future

As society in general becomes more aware of the collaborative nature of research and as more senior scientists are forced to admit the critical contributions of their "fleets of minions" (ie, graduate students and postdocs), will we someday see changes to how the Nobel Prize is awarded?  Hopefully yes, but any progress will be slow.  Hopefully, however the increasing numbers of women in science and the rise of women like Jocelyn Bell Burnell to positions of prominence will result in greater awareness and hopefully further eradication of gender bias and archaic attitudes toward the role of women.  While this may never eliminate the Matthew Effect in science, it hopefully will one day make the Matilda Effect a thing of the past.                   

Sources and Further Reading
  • BBC Universe page on Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  Available here.
  • N.S. Blow.  "Prizes in an Age of Collaborative Research."  BioTechniques.  2012.  52:11
  • S. J. Bell Burnell.  "Little Green Men, White Dwarfs, or Pulsars?"  Cosmic Search Magazine interview available here.  Republished in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. 1977.  302:685-689.
  • S. J. Bell Burnell.  "So Few Pulsars, So Few Females."  Science.  2004.  304:489.    
  • A. Casadevall and F. C. Fang.  "Is the Nobel Prize Good for Science?"  The FASEB Journal.  2013.  doi: 10.1096/fj.13-238758
  • B. G. Charlton.  "Why There Should Be More Science Nobel Prizes and Laureates -- And Why Proportional Credit Should be Awarded to Institutions."  Medical Hypotheses.  2007.  68: 471-473.
  • D. DeVorkin.  Interview with Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  Oral History Transcript.  Niels Bohr Laboratory and Archives, Center for the History of Physics.  Available here.
  • Famousscientists.org biography of Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  Available here.
  • M. Gozum.  "An Award for Science Is an Obsolete Notion."  Science.  2009.  323:207-208. 
  • C. Holden.  "Chauvinism in Nobel Nominations."  Science.  1989.  243:471.  
  • P.A. Lawrence.  "Rank, Invention and the Nobel Prize."  Current Biology.  2012. 22:R214-R216.
  • NASA.  Jocelyn Bell Burnell biography.  Available here.  
  • Nature Editors.  "The Reward System Needs Overhauling."  Nature.  1975.  254:277. 
  • P. Pringle.  "Notebooks Shed Light on an Antibiotics Contested Discovery."   New York Times.  12 June 2012.   Available here
  • E. Saner.  "Jocelyn Bell Burnell."  Guardian Series, "Top 100 Women: Science and Medicine."  Available hereMany of the quotes by Bell Burnell came from here.
  • Scientific American Editors.  "Solve the Nobel Prize Dilemma.  Now That Teams, Not Individuals, Drive High-Impact Science, the Nobel Foundations Should Change How it Awards its Prize.  Scientific American.  2012.  307:12
  • N. Wade.  "Discovery of Pulsars: A Graduate Student's Story."  Science.  1975.  189:358-364.
  • M. Wainwright.  "Nobel Infallibility." Nature. 1989. 342:336.  
  • M. Wainwright.  "Streptomycin: Discovery and Resultant Controversy." History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences.  1991.  13:97-124.
  • M. Wainwright.  "A Response to William Kingston, 'Streptomycin, Schatz versus Waksman, and the Balance of Credit for Discovery.'"  Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.  2005.  60:218-220. 
  • UCLA Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics (CWP). Biography of Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  Available here.


  1. Antony Hewish had worked for years designing and building radio telescopes with Martin Ryle. He asked for 20,000 pounds to build a low frequency telescope. He thought up the idea to use a lower frequency of 81 MHz to observe scintillations in the sky. He assigned various jobs to various students. Jocelyn Bell was assigned a job... to read chart recordings and map out scintillations. All Jocelyn Bell did was to bring anomalies to his attention, including the one on the chart that later was known as the pulsar. Any graduate student might have been assigned to do the same. She had no clue what a pulsar was. Hewish with other professors then set out to measure bandwidth and do all sorts of study on the particular anomaly that he would refer to as pulsars later on. He was looking for anomalies and Bell was not the only student to work on this. She also did not take all those bandwidth readings and do other things that lead to the writing of the paper talked of, whereby she is second author. It took another three people to do work to get that paper written and it took Hewish and his knowledge to make a credible statement that what they found was real. Hewish had many other people working on his low frequency telescope, looking at everything and anything that would prove this particular scintillation was something. He orchestrated it all. Bell was in the right place at the right time, but what she found did not in itself prove anything. The telescope and equipment Hewish designed found the pulsars. She did not convince him of anything. He did not ignore the oddity she pointed out. He asked for assistance from other professors to figure out what was going on. She had no knowledge beyond... oh look at this scintillation. Many people did work on this and it was all orchestrated by Hewish. He deserved the Nobel Prize and that prize was for more than finding an anomaly on a chart recording. If he hadn't invented the telescope to do so, no one would know who Jocelyn Bell was. I'm a female scientist and I'm mentioning this so no one thinks I'm some disgruntled man who hates women. I'm a woman who hates seeing a man or any scientist bashed for doing an enormous amount of work, only to have people think he did nothing for his prize. Somehow, because of the media of the time and 2nd wave feminism, Hewish is made to look like the thief who stole pulsars. His prize was for more than pulsars. It also was for his involvement in the technology to record such things.

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