Pliers, pulsars and extreme physics

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Garth
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Main Question or Discussion Point

Ever wondered what it is like to make a major discovery in astrophysics?

You may be interested in reading Jocelyn Bell Burnell's account of how she discovered pulsars as a postgraduate: Pliers, pulsars and extreme physics.

BTW, - Jocelyn is too gracious to mention this - so great was the discovery that it merited a Nobel Prize, which went to her supervisor!
There was a lot of publicity following the announcement. The Press descended and when they discovered that S J Bell was young and female, they descended even faster. And that was another very interesting experience. Typically they would ask Tony Hewish about
the astrophysical importance of the discovery. And then they’d turn to me and ask me what my vital statistics were or about how many boyfriends I had. I wasn’t shapely enough for page three, but that was all women were for. The science correspondent of the Daily
Telegraph actually named the objects. He was interviewing us one day and asked us what we were calling these things. We hadn’t considered the matter, so he said: “Well, there are quasars, what about ‘pulsar’ for pulsating radio star?”
I liked the bit about pulsar prior discoveries:
In the late 50s or early 60s there was an open night at, I think, Flagstaff Observatory
(Arizona). The person demonstrating the night sky had the telescope trained on the Crab Nebula (figure 4), and particularly on the Minkowski star, which we now know as the Crab Pulsar. A woman looked down the telescope and said “That star’s flashing”. The assistant explained to her about scintillation. “Yes,” she said, “I’m an airplane pilot. I know the difference between random scintillation and flashing. That star is flashing.” Nobody followed
it up.
A few years before we discovered pulsars there was a 408 MHz survey of the sky. This survey required big radio telescopes and the observers got time where they could. In what
they hoped was the last week of their survey, they were having problems with one of the
chart recorders. One day in the early hours the recorder pen started sweeping regularly: bleep,bleep, bleep… The radio astronomer concerned said “Damn” and thumped the pen recorder: it stopped “misbehaving”. Unfortunately he did not write anything in the logbook. If he had, they could have claimed a prior discovery for they were observing the pulsar PSR0328+54.
Ever thumped your apparatus to stop it misbehaving?

Garth
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
mgb_phys
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Happens a lot, I think a German guy discovered the electron before Thompson but put it down to faulty equipement.

We used to teach a lab where a graph deliberately had a spike due to stray lead capacitance - most of the students removed the 'bad' measurement to get the straight line. Generally it was the 'best' students who knew what the result should look like.
 

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