Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
You've met Jocelyn, decades ago -- if not in the flesh, then at least in the lyrics of my song "Little Green Man." Here's the first verse, to refresh your memory:
At Cambridge, a grad student named Jocelyn Bell
Yes, that Jocelyn, discoverer of the pulsar. A discovery a half century ago, which ultimately garnered a Nobel Prize -- not for Jocelyn, but rather for her research advisor, Prof. Antony Hewish. That's what it was like for women in the physical sciences in the nineteen sixties.
For her own part, Jocelyn has always underplayed having been denied her due. She was just the graduate student, she insists, so Hewish deserved first author status in their paper in Nature. That's just the way things were back then, she says, with no hint of resentment, or any indication that she feels sexism played a role in the oversight. Besides, she's had a successful academic career, so why dwell on the past?
In September, Jocelyn finally received long-overdue recognition for what was probably her most significant scientific contribution, in the form of the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. This award has only ever been granted three times (a fellow recipient is the late Prof. Stephen Hawking), and is just as prestigious as (and more lucrative than) the prize that bears Alfred Nobel's name.
"It's about f***ing time," I said to my wife when she told me the news, and Muriel agreed. So, I hope, does Jocelyn (though she would never express her thoughts so crudely, because she is a humble and modest Quaker). In fact, Jocelyn is donating all of her prize money to a scholarship fund to help underrepresented minorities study Physics. "I don't need a Porsche," insists Jocelyn (possibly a not-so-subtle jab at me, since that's what I drive). "I don't have an affluent lifestyle." Perhaps one of those scholarship recipients will be the woman who makes the next big astrophysics discovery. Hopefully, she won't have to wait a half-century to be recognized.
SETI League president Richard Factor, on hearing the news, suggested it was time to add to my song from long ago. So I did. Here, then, is its new penultimate verse:
A half of a century slowly would pass
At long last, Jocelyn's story gets the happy ending it deserves. It's about f***ing time.
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this page last updated 3 November 2018
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