Have a setback, bounce back. That is what all the self-help books would proclaim loud and clear. It applies as much in science as anywhere else, perhaps more so since the setback need not be in one’s career or personal dealings with others as in the experiments that go wrong again and again and again. It is, you may think, easy for the self-help books to trumpet such resilience but who really manages it in practice?
In my public ‘conversation’ with Jocelyn Bell Burnell last week there was a masterclass in how to overcome personal and professional hurdles provided by her. The recording of the conversation will be online soon*, but in the meantime let me tease out from the narrative a few key and remarkable aspects. Jocelyn has such a high public profile, and the outline of her life story in which she was ‘deprived’ of the Nobel Prize by shadowy male establishment figures simply as a result of sexism is well known. But the reality is, unsurprisingly, more complex and interesting and, seen through her eyes, much less clear cut and wicked.
Leaving aside the early years, which had their own challenges as Jocelyn failed the 11+ that long gone exam that separated the academic goats from the sheep who were destined for more practical or vocational education. Or the fact that the school she attended thereafter corralled the boys into science lessons and the girls into domestic science. (Yes really; this must have been in the 1950s. Certainly my own primary school days of those years had the boys doing wood- and metal-work while the girls attempted to learn to sew a fine seam.) Overcoming both those obstacles, Jocelyn went on to Glasgow to read physics, with a very clear eye on becoming a radioastronomer because, as she said, she liked her bed and didn’t think conventional observational astronomy would suit her.
Glasgow Physics sounds like an ordeal by fire. A lecture theatre full of male students who barracked her as she, the only female student attending, walked in each day. Many a student would have turned tail and decided to study something else instead (or just stayed in that comfortable bed). Jocelyn’s response was simply to excel. I wonder if other universities shared this obnoxious practice and why lecturers thought it was acceptable not to intervene, simply on the grounds of humanity if nothing else.
The critical period of her PhD in Cambridge was when she spotted the small and unexpected signal that ultimately led to the identification of pulsars. That she noticed this signal (10 parts in a million I think was how she described it) she attributed to her impostor syndrome. Feeling like an interloper in the establishment-setting of Cambridge meant she thought she had to be extra thorough to be sure of her ground. However, these observations were not part of her thesis, and Martin Ryle and Tony Hewish took forward the discussions and interpretations without involving her very much. She did, however, get her name on the paper. One might say ‘but of course’ but it would seem it perhaps wasn’t quite as obvious as that.
That story is well known, but I think what happened thereafter is less so. And it is here that resilience was needed over many years. During her PhD, Jocelyn got engaged. She said how much the mere existence of that ring on her finger changed people’s attitudes. Back then, in the late ‘60s, it was presumed immediately by those around her that meant not only that she was going to get married but that she would quit science. A woman in such a position did not need be taken seriously. (I am pleased to report that for me, less than 10 years later and in the same department in Cambridge, I suffered none of that attitudinal change once I started sporting an engagement ring – and then got married – during my PhD.) Once she was married the expectation, on everyone’s part, was that she would simply follow her husband around. And so she did. She managed to keep working, but in a variety of non-independent non-research roles, including working part-time after the birth of her son. She could not build on her PhD work but mastered a range of different technical skills in different sorts of astronomy but in support roles. This, she claimed, gave her a great breadth and understanding. She did not express frustration or anger in her conversation with me that this was what her life turned into. It is hard to believe she did not feel those emotions, at least some of the time, and I wish I had allowed myself more time in the conversation to probe further.
It was only once her marriage ended in divorce, and her son was at university (studying physics at Cambridge as it happens), that she was free to do what she wanted. She took up a role at the Open University and finally – at the age of 50 – found herself in a position to speak up and, consequently, become a very visible role model for women in science (whether she wanted to or not). Since then she has held a variety of key roles (at Bath and Oxford) and increasingly been in the public eye. Most recently she was awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize of $3M – which she has given all away to support minority students studying physics, a statement that led to a spontaneous round of applause from the audience to our conversation.
She has had to demonstrate resilience in spades. Coming back from the disadvantages of her schooling, the challenges of her male peers during her degree, the attitudes of those senior males around her during her PhD plus the long years of being the trailing spouse never able to take a job that would have been her first choice, she has nevertheless emerged as cheerful (and not bitter) and always encouraging to those behind her. The Breakthrough Prize was a remarkable tribute to a remarkable woman. She stands as a beacon of keeping firm to her tenets and making the best of whatever life has thrown at her. For anyone wanting encouragement that survival against the odds is possible, there is no need to look further.
I will post the link to the recording as soon as it is live on the Churchill College website.
*4-12-18 Full recording can be found here.