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[Phys-L] Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins special Breakthrough Prize

In 1967, while she was a graduate student, Jocelyn Bell discovered
pulsars. This was a big deal. I was in high school at the time,
and generally clueless, but even I heard about it. Even weeks later,
nobody knew a good mechanism to explain the observations.

Her advisor got the Nobel prize. She didn't. This struck me as
very unfair. But it didn't damage her too much.

“I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize. If you
get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives
you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything
that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because
I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”

At one point I invited her to give the Bell Labs colloquium.
That was fun. I got to hobnob with her for a day, talking
about science ... and about affirmative action in science,
which was a pet project of hers (and of mine).

I make a point of not remembering her advisor's name.


Not all advisors are jerks. About 5 years after pulsars were
discovered, the superfluid phase of 3He was discovered. The
authors on the Phys Rev Letter were Osheroff, Richardson,
and Lee. Prof. Richardson and Prof. Lee had a long-standing
policy that the grad student should (a) writ the paper and
(b) be listed as first author. In this case Osheroff had
built the apparatus with his own hands, taken the data,
and observed the "glitch" ... but that wasn't even the main
consideration. The authorship policy was explicitly based
on the idea that the grad student would soon be looking for
a job, and so had the most to benefit from the attention
that comes from being first author.

I've always considered this to be a wise policy. The same
idea applies to having the student present the group's work
at the big fancy international meeting. When this works as
intended, it's fun to watch: Somebody suddenly goes from
Ms. Who-the-heck-is-that-on-the-schedule
Ms. Has-a-job-offer-from-everybody-you've-ever-heard-of.

The Nobel committee seems to have wised up a bit. Osheroff,
Richard and Lee shared equally in the Nobel prize.