Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018 / A Celebration of Women in Astronomy

Credit: Edinburgh International Science Festival

Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is currently a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and is famous for the significant scientific achievement of discovering the first radio pulsars in 1967. The discovery was recognised with a Nobel Prize for Physics, but she was excluded despite having been the first to observe and analyse the pulsars. Since then, aside of her scientific work, Prof. Bell has been involved with initiatives which promote and support women and equality in science.

As part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Prof. Bell gave a talk titled ‘A Celebration of Women in Astronomy’, in which she presented four of her favourite astronomers, as well as an overview of the current picture of women in the field. The astronomers of her choice were Caroline Herschel, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Vera Rubin, and Rebecca Elson. Prof. Bell pointed out how Herschel had been told by her father that she was too ugly to get married, and that all she could do was to serve one of her brothers. Luckily though, another one of her brothers was involved with science. She moved in with him, and using the telescope with which he discovered Uranus, Herschel did her own research on comets and stars, for which she received recognition much later.

Prof. Bell also told the amazing story of Payne-Gaposchkin, who, although urged to become a professional musician by Gustav Holst, chose science and went to the University of Cambridge to study biology. However, after accidentally attending a lecture during an expedition organised by Arthur Eddington to observe the stars during a solar eclipse in order to verify Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, she was fascinated and decided to switch her studies to physics and astronomy. She then moved to the USA and became the first woman to get a PhD from Harvard University and the first person to discover that stars are made largely of hydrogen. However, her work was published without her being mentioned.

Vera Rubin was also mentioned for her important work on the rotation of galaxies; and for the fact that she never gave up science, even though Princeton University denied her admission, as women were not allowed to study there at the time. Finally, Rebecca Elson was admired by Prof Bell not only for her research on the evolution of stars, but also for her poetry skills. Prof Bell concluded this part of her talk by reading a part of Elson’s poem, Let there always be light.

For the second part of her talk, Prof. Bell presented some of the current statistics of women in astronomy and tried to explain why women are still massively underrepresented and why some countries are doing better than others. She pointed out that, in the UK, 13% of astronomers are women, which is lower than the world average (17%); on the other hand, Italy is at the top, with 26%. She commented, “I cannot believe that Italian women have better brains than the British; it’s not the brains, it’s the culture.” She also presented graphs that show the drop of women from undergraduate studies to higher senior position in all fields of science, and she explained, “It’s hard for women to work in a male dominated environment; women are like ‘the canaries in the coal mine’ ”.

Finally, Prof. Bell described the road to equality in the UK, from the first reaction, which was to “fix women” by providing them with special training and funding, until the present ongoing effort towards an “institutional change” and making science a fairer place for all, not just for women. She mentioned the significant work of initiatives such the Athena SWAN awards and the HeforShe campaign, as well as the importance of being aware of unconscious bias and “institutional sexism”. She concluded her talk by encouraging women to share their stories of harassment, as “stories are very powerful” and the exposure of “serial harassers” can change the picture.

This article was written by Athina Frantzana and edited by Teodora Aldea

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