When I was young back in the fifties, career prospects for girls were limited. As a girl, you were expected to marry and become a stay-at-home wife and mother, supporting your husband in his career. Many aspects of your life were governed by these assumptions.
When we entered secondary school (at age 11 or 12) boys learnt science while girls learnt needlework, and cookery. Science was the up-and-coming thing and I wanted to do science. The Head Teacher was lobbied, and the second time our science class met we were three girls and all the rest were boys. I think we were the first girls in that school to do science.
We did physics that first term, I loved it and came top of the class. Chemistry the next term was OK; biology in the third term (drawing flowers, learning the names of the parts) I found boring. So my prejudices were set at about age 12!
I continued to be good at physics, and at age 13 or 14, when we were learning about motion in a circle I picked up a library book on astronomy. Soon I was reading about stars and the great galaxies, each a rotating system of one hundred thousand million stars. Suddenly I saw the relevance of our physics class on circular motion! I was fascinated and decided to become an astronomer.
However there was a problem (besides the problem of my being a girl) – I needed my sleep! Staying up all night to observe stars, was almost impossible… So I couldn’t be an astronomer!
The branch of astronomy known as radio astronomy started about 1950. At radio wavelengths the Sun does not dominate the sky the way it does in the visible part of the spectrum, and so radio astronomy can be done in the daytime as well as at night. If I became a radio astronomer, I could do astronomy and get a good night’s sleep!
Getting a good degree in physics at University was the first step and then I got a place in Cambridge University to carry out research in radio astronomy. Cambridge is a very prestigious university, and at that time there were few places there for women.
I found it over-awing, and thought they had made a mistake admitting me. I reckoned they would sooner or later discover their mistake and throw me out.
(We now call this feeling imposter syndrome.) I decided I would work my very hardest, so that when they threw me out I would know that I had done my best – I hadn’t wasted the opportunity. So in my research I was being very thorough, very diligent.
I spent the first two years building the radio telescope – largely manual work – and then I became its very first user, using it for my research. I had no access to a computer; my data came on long strips of chart -120 cm every hour, 24 hours a day. I observed for 6 months so that meant over 5 kilometres of chart paper in total. It would take you 6,500 steps to walk it!
The data was good; I was getting lots of research done. But the telescope picked up one signal that did not make sense to me. It was tiny – it occupied about 0.5 cm in every 500m of the chart paper. Being thorough I decided to investigate it, whereupon it disappeared! When it came back a month later I found it was a string of pulses spaced at 1.3 seconds.
Nobody had ever seen anything like that and of course we had to ensure it was a natural radio emission, and really from out there in space.
I went home that evening very cross. Here I was trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us.
Then I found a second (pulsing at 1.25 sec) in a different part of the sky, and then a third and a fourth, all pulsing steadily, each at their own rate.
I had discovered a new kind of star, now called a pulsar which swings a beam of radio waves around the sky – a bit like a lighthouse – and we see a pulse (or flash) each time the beam sweeps over the earth. Now hundreds of these ‘pulsars’ are known and hundreds of radio astronomers are studying them.
Illustration by by Ilaria Decataldo.
Una, writer and educator
Radu Toma, Romania
Financier and CEO, USA
Letizia, Saudi Arabia
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