Science: The Passing of Antony Hewish

The Story:

Antony Hewish passed away this month, age 97. He had an extraordinary career as a radio astronomer, and for a brief period in 1967 seriously entertained the hypothesis that he had received signals from aliens.

A Piece of History:

In the 1960s Hewish proposed, and received funding for, a large array radio telescope pointed at the sky. He assigned one of his Ph.D. students, Jocelyn Bell, to analyze  its output. She heard an anomaly, a  “rapidly pulsating radio source,” and reported it to him.

For a period of two months, before publishing anything about this phemomenon, Hewish considered seriously the possibility that the source was an alien intelligence he called LGM (for “little green men”).

But in time he decided that the most plausible explanation was a highly magnetized, rapidly rotating neutron star, which he named a “pulsar.”

For the discovery of the pulsar, Hewish won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974. Actually he shared the prize that year with Martin Ryle, who had developed the sort of radio telescope that Hewish and his team were using. Some controversy has arisen from the fact that the Nobel Prize committee did not give any part of the credit to Jocelyn Bell.

Strange New Worlds:

The fact that Bell was not credited is sometimes attributed to the gender bias against women in academic science. Jocelyn Bell herself (in later life Jocelyn Bell Burnell) has since had a very distinguished career in the field: she was president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004.

She does not blame either Hewish or the prize committee for downplaying her role. In her view, that was simply typical of the relationship between Ph.D. candidates and their thesis supervisors.


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