We are made of star stuff!

4 March 2016

One night, at about 2 am, PhD student Jocelyn Bell detected a strange pulsing radio signal coming from deep space. It was a very regular, ‘beating’ just under once a second. Had we finally discovered a life on other planets that was trying to communicate with us? She had built a 4-acre radio telescope in a field by effectively stringing together 2000 tiny radio antennae. It was one of the first of its kind. There followed another signal, much the same but very slightly different. Like the first radio signal, it pulsed at a fixed rate, but this rate was a lot faster than that of the first.  She worked out that these pulsing signals were actually caused by small densely packed neutron stars, which were spinning at a fixed rate. This was 1967 and these newly discovered stars were called pulsars.

Pulsars are incredibly useful. Scientists had never been able to properly study neutron stars before, but the fact that we can actually see pulsars and measure how fast they spin means that we can learn so much more about these stars than we ever could before.

Despite receiving no credit in the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974 (the award going instead to her supervisor and another researcher) the now Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell became President of the Royal Astronomical Society, President of the Institute of Physics and is currently Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University. She spends her time talking to schools and working to get more women into science.

We are hugely excited that Professor Dame Jocelyn has agreed to come to Oxford High, invited on the initiative of Sixth Formers Hannah, Lisa and Nandini from STEMSoc, to give a talk to the girls on astronomy. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear from such an eminent scientist who credits her inspiring Physics Teacher as being one of her influences whilst at school:

“You don’t have to learn lots and lots … of facts; you just learn a few key things, and … then you can apply and build and develop from those … He was a really good teacher and showed me, actually, how easy physics was.”

Jocelyn Bell Burnell


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