Serendipitous science

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Friday, June 29, 2007

The sweetest discoveries in science are often the ones nobody ever expected to make. Such is the story of the discovery of pulsars 40 years ago by Irish physicist Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and her Ph.D. thesis advisor, Antony Hewish.
To earn her doctorate in physics, Bell-Burnell was to use a new radio telescope at the University of Cambridge, England, to study quasars, about which little was known at the time. About a month into her project, Bell-Burnell noticed an "annoying bit of scruff" on one of the paper chart recorders attached to the radio telescope. The radio signal pulsed every 1⅓ seconds. The scientists dubbed it "Little Green Man 1."
In this month's "Jodcast" — a podcast produced by The University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory — Bell-Burnell recounts the story of how she and her colleagues chased the little green man and ended up at the doorstep of an entirely new type of star, now officially cataloged as PSR 1919+21. Give it a listen. I promise you will be entertained by Bell-Burnell's self-deprecating wit and her charmingly human account of serendipitous science and the harried life of a graduate student in the 1960s.

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