Paradigm Shift?

An article in the Telegraph (from last month) was pointed out to me the other day about someone who could just be one of the most important people in physics today. Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the current head of the Institute of Physics (IoP). Former head of physics at the Open University, and visiting professor of astrophysics at Oxford (having previously helped discover pulsars while studying at Cambridge), she’s, frankly, a shining light in what seems like a rather dark time for British science.

In light of all the nonsense with the STFC attempting to cut funding to physics and astronomy, the lack of students both at undergrad and school level interested in physics and a general unwillingness even to teach it, UK science isn’t exactly looking healthy. What’s more only around 20% of UK undergrads and less than 4% of IoP members are female. In an age which preaches about equality, that simply won’t do. Bell Burnell is apparently making it her personal mission to rid the country of this particular stigma, and has apparently received hundreds of letters from female science students. Sadly, it’s a social thing. Being a scientist isn’t particularly cool, especially for a girl — or so the majority of people seem to believe. Personally, my opinion couldn’t be more opposite! Some of the best scientists I’ve met are women (and interestingly, in astronomy there’s quite an even balance between the two genders). I’d go so far as to say that female scientists are sexy, but I fear I might be branded as a chauvinist…
Unfortunately, I’m a geek — so my opinions on this probably don’t count.

But putting all of that aside, there’s one other big reason why Bell Burnell is so important as a role model for students — she’s a practicing Quaker. After all the anti-religious nonsense that people like Richard Dawkins have been spouting, it’s nice to know that there are still successful scientists who don’t need to be quite so childish. As I’ve said before, I really wish we could all just get along…

“I find the two reasonably compatible. In Quakerism, your understanding of God is revised in light of your own experience, while in research science you revise your model in light of data from your experiments.

People are suspicious of science. They see it as being responsible for problems like the degradation of our climate. There is also a strand in society that says physics is terribly hard. Unfortunately, there have been times when scientists have said, ‘It’s far too complicated, you won’t understand’, which is a bit like saying ‘I’m brilliant, aren’t I?'”

Music to my ears! The world needs more scientists like Jocelyn Bell Burnell!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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16 Responses to Paradigm Shift?

  1. invaderxan says:

    Yeah, I’m a little wary of Googling for anything concerning both the IAU and Pluto! ;)
    All the same, there’s got to be a copy somewhere. YouTube perhaps…

  2. stargzr_htn says:

    Well, it was part of an IAU meeting, so maybe start there. Or google Pluto & wade through a lot of muck.

  3. invaderxan says:

    Re: You are not a chauvinist :)
    You poor thing. :(
    Frankly, behaviour like that (from a teacher, no less!) disgusts me more than anything else! Passions and interests should be encouraged and celebrated, regardless what they’re in and who they come from. It’s so sad…
    For what it’s worth, I think you would’ve made a brilliant scientist.

  4. invaderxan says:


  5. invaderxan says:

    Oh wow, really? Nice. :)
    So she’s actually pretty down-to-Earth, huh?
    Do you mind if I ask, which institution do you work at?
    (If you don’t want to answer publicly on the internet though, I’ll understand).
    Heh, as for ranting, isn’t that what keeping a blog is all about? As for people devoting entire blogs to the subject, I know for a fact that at least a couple of people already have!
    Female Science Professor is always a blog worth reading! :)

  6. invaderxan says:

    Astronomy seems to have more appeal, generally, and perhaps that has something to do with these things. Certainly more people care about astronomy than, say, fluid dynamics.
    I think what we need to do (at least when we’re fully qualified scientists) is to be more open, and try not to lose the ability to speak in plain English. Plus, too many scientists don’t allow themselves to get excited about things. Let’s face it — discovering something new is exciting! I figure, if people understand what you do and understand what excites you, they’ll better understand why you do it.
    Actually, that’s rapidly becoming one of the main reasons I keep this blog…

  7. invaderxan says:

    It’s just… reassuring. To know that there are some true role models left, and that there are some scientists who are willing to actually be passionate about science!
    Generally, the gender balance in academic faculties, at least in my experience, is seldom an even one. Female lecturers, yes. Female professors… only infrequently. It’s not right.

  8. invaderxan says:

    Hmmm… I wonder if the video footage is still on the internet somewhere. I’d love to see it!

  9. beepbeep says:

    You are not a chauvinist :)
    One huge reason my knowledge of science is so sketchy is that I was the victim of severe anti-girl discrimination in math/science from a teacher when I was around age 13. It took my confidence away and resulted in what had been a passionate interest in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine all put aside in favor of the writing I was doing in my English classes…because my English teacher did not hurt, embarrass or humiliate me just because I found math to be very easy and Male Chauvinist Pig did not want a girl in the number one place on his sick, competitive, obsessive class ranking announcements. I pray things are better today in the educational system but I have no way of knowing. It is good to see some people like you would give us encouragement instead of put-downs.

  10. purplehez says:

    As a female physics student, with spiritual/pagan leanings, I could not agree with you more!

  11. I’ve got to have breakfast and lunch with JBB (and sadly missed her coming to speak at an undergrad conference on women in physics), but she is an awesome woman, and much more unassuming than I would have thought (though she does get her jabs in when need be;)).
    At my new institution, there’s an even split male/female in the grad population, which is encouraging- I was the only female in my last program. It’s better in astronomy departments than it is in physics or joint departments, and while it’s not JUST social, it’s definitely a HUGE factor. Don’t get me started on my rants about women in physics. I could devote an entire blog to the topic and never run dry.
    Anywhoo, yay for JBB and her awesomeness.

  12. pax_athena says:

    She sounds really interesting!
    I’d go so far as to say that female scientists are sexy, but I fear I might be branded as a chauvinist…
    I’m a woman (with a male partner) and I’d agree on that ;)
    I know that at least in my university there certainly are more female students in astronomy than in other branches of physics, but whether it really does help with an average percentage of about 20% female students, I don’t know ;_; You are so right when you write that “Being a scientist isn’t particularly cool” for many people, which is sad. I mean – what is cooler than finding out new things, pushing the boundaries of things we know and understand and can? *sighs* I just wonder how to make people understand it!

  13. dustchick says:

    I’ve had the honor of hearing JBB speak on a few occasions, and she is as passionate about science and astronomy as you could hope for. A wonderful role model.
    Speaking of gender balance in astronomy… I’ve been attending AAS meetings since the mid-1990s and the gender balance of the attendees has definitely improved during that time period. However, as a look around at astronomy departments, that is not necessarily reflected in the faculty.

  14. stargzr_htn says:

    From watching JBB officiate at the demise of Pluto via a live webcast, I get the feeling she must also be a wonderful teacher.

  15. invaderxan says:


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