THREE weeks after the Independence referendum, at a time when Scotland was fairly sure it was about to have a female First Minister, another first was happening.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell became the first female president of The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Loading article content

It's not 71-year-old Bell Burnell's only first. In fact, in her career, it's almost the norm for her to be there first or almost first. She was the first female president, for instance, of the Institute of Physics of UK and Ireland. In 1967, she was the first person to spot a radio telescope reading that would lead to the discovery of a whole new kind of star. She was not, however, as some thought she should have been, the third woman to win the Nobel Prize for physics, for that discovery. That award went to the scientists who supervised her. Nevertheless, Bell Burnell is thought of as having been a true pioneer, the postgraduate student who doggedly persisted in studying endless paper rolls of readings, who identified some small "scruffs" or squiggles on a line and saw that they were unexpected and perhaps meaningful.

Being one of few women at the top of the tree in the physical sciences, is a topic close to her heart. Now "retired", for the last ten years she says she has been "busier than ever, trotting around the world, lecturing". One of her frequent topics is "women and science". Often in these talks, she cites statistics: for instance, that in Argentina 37% of the members of the International Astronomical Union are women, but, here, in the UK, only 12% are.

She also recalls how when she started secondary school in Northern Ireland where she grew up, one afternoon the girls were told they had to go to one room, and the boys to another, girls to the domestic science room, boys to the science lab. Her parents objected and the next time they had science there were three girls sitting in class.

Burnell celebrates the "long way we've come", but also says it's not been an easy journey. At Glasgow University, where she was the only woman in her honours physics class in the early 1960s, she recalls, there was a tradition that "when a woman entered the lecture hall, all the guys stamped, whistled, cat called, banged the desk made as much unpleasant noise as they could." She learned, she says, not to blush.

Right now she does not live in Scotland, but instead comes up almost every week from England, where she is Dean of the University of Bath. She has worked in Edinburgh before, for the Royal Observatory, and brought up her son, Gavin (now a physicist), in Dunfermline. Her then husband, Martin Burnell, was personnel officer for Fife regional council. Each morning they would head off in opposite directions. Bell Burnell recalls loving the landscape, "driving to work there was the Pentlands in front of you, driving home the Ochils in front."

But for all there were pleasures to her Fife life, it ended in heartbreak. Her husband left her for a younger woman. This had been going to be a time in her life when, after following his jobs around the country, they started to go where she wanted and needed to for her career. She recalls the aftermath of the break-up: "There were a lot of things to process. The first priority was to see my son finish school in Dunfermline."

Bell Burnell believes that the situation for women is now changing fast. This is the case, she notes, in academic circles, where funding bodies are requiring universities to show that they are "women friendly". It's now a far cry from the world she began studying in. Her first contact with astronomy was when her father, who was architect at the Armagh Observatory, took her to spend time there. There were very few female astronomers at that point. Since astronomy was mostly a night-time occupation, women were restricted in what they could do - a man and a woman, for instance, were not allowed to observe together. So she was attracted instead to radio astronomy, which could be done in the daytime.

She did her PhD at Cambridge, where it was her thesis work that led to the Nobel Prize. It's a thrilling discovery tale, which begins with two years of heavy manual labour, spent building the radio receiver - not as one might imagine a huge dish, but a field of posts, like fence posts and wires. Bell Burnell's thesis was to look at quasars, objects in space that scintillated, or twinkled. Her mission was to monitor them over a six month period with this radio telescope. Through the building she became very fit - so much so that she could whack a hockey ball over the full diagonal of the field.

Once the telescope was built, the recording process began: most of her afternoons and evenings would be spent scanning 96ft stretches of chart paper, rolled out long on the floor. Then, she noticed, what she described as a "scruff", an unexpected reading. Later she found another. They were jokingly nicknamed LGM, after Little Green Men. But Burnell never quite took this theory seriously. She thought they were something else, but didn't know what. And they were: these flashes coming from deep space, which became known as pulsars, turned out to be a new type of star, the neutron star - and their discovery changed science's understanding of the universe.

Burnell appears untroubled by the fact that she did not win the Nobel prize herself. She recalls having been pleased when the award was announced, the first for astronomy, since, for her, it meant her field was finally recognised as doing serious science. In retrospect, she says ,"I've done much better not getting it."

This is something she pondered recently when the Nobel Peace Prize went to Malala Yousafzai at just seventeen years old. "I've been thinking, 'What she's been going through?' There'll be people after her money, people wanting her endorsement of their schemes - sensible or crackpot. It's a very tough call to get right, living with that and actually I think it's better I didn't."

Burnell recalls that when she was doing her PhD, colleagues were more enthusiastic about her getting married than any of her research. "My generation was the turning point. Women older than us didn't expect to have jobs or careers; those younger did. But we were where it was changing - which is interesting but uncomfortable. You're challenging society's norms."

At that time it was assumed that when a woman had a family she would give up work. Burnell soon, however, realised that staying at home with a baby "was not me". She struggled. Childcare was difficult to find. When she told neighbours she was bored, they would say, "Look, you've got a husband, a new house and a new baby. What's wrong with you?" Though her husband said that he didn't expect his wife to be at home, she felt that was exactly what he wanted. She recalls one day when she was out with her son in a pram, being stopped by a woman doing a poll. "She asked a series of questions, then she said, 'What's your husband's occupation?' And I said, 'But I'm higher qualified than he is.' 'What's your husband's occupation?' she repeated. That was all she wanted to know."

After her relationship broke up, she never married again. "I've enjoyed being a single person," she says, "particularly because I'm travelling a lot. It would be hard to maintain a relationship - so I've really not tried."

Bell Burnell has got used to challenging norms, used to being one of the few or only women in the room. "There was a dinner here last night," she says, "because we had the chairman of the European Research Council speaking. 25 people, and there were maybe five women. I'm used to it, but not sure it's right. Societies would be healthier if they were more diverse."

Diversity, in fact, is at the heart of her talks about women in science. "People from different backgrounds," she says, "approach a subject in different ways and ask different questions. There's some evidence that if you're recruiting you tend to recruit a mini-me. Then you have a very comfortable group round a table. You all think alike. You agree. People are arguing that the banking crisis was because too many of the relevant bodies were thinkalikes, and that if they'd had more diversity maybe it wouldn't have happened. "

Among her skills is communicating and teaching. Not only is she in demand to talk about women and science, but about how we are all "made of star stuff": how the elements found inside our bodies came from previous stars. Following our interview, she heads off to Irvine Royal Academy, where she says, she will tell this star-story. Who knows, perhaps among the girls there, will be some who see her, be inspired, and think they are made of the stuff to become science stars.