Our town of Abingdon-on-Thames is situated in one of the real science hubs of the UK. Apart from all the science faculties in Oxford to the north, just south of the town is the Harwell campus – home of the Diamond Light Source and the Rutherford Appleton Lab. To the SE is the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy home of JET – the Joint European Torus and other high-powered projects. This is what Professor Frank Close told us on Thursday evening, introducing an evening of ‘Converscience’ the opening event of ATOM! held at my daughter’s school.
Frank is a professor of particle physics at Oxford and the first ‘Converscience’ of the evening was with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnett FRS – the noted cosmologist who discovered pulsars in 1967, despite pirate radio stations broadcasting on the frequencies reserved for astronomical research!
Bell told us about how she made her discovery. As a post-grad radio-astronomer, she had to analyse up to 96 feet of paper print-out every day, and after about 3 miles of paper, she gradually realised that there was a regular anomaly of interference. She worked out the pulsing was occurring in sidereal time – so it couldn’t be man-made. Her bosses took a lot of persuading – what if it were an alien transmission? She christened it the LGM1 – Little Green Man 1. To her immense relief, she found a second pulsar (her ‘Eureka moment’) and then two further ones which finally proved to her bosses that they weren’t of alien origin. They in fact came from neutron stars, which had previously been theorised, but pulsars were completely new.
However, when the discovery was published, her name wasn’t first on the paper, and she didn’t get the Nobel prize, her boss did. Instead, she got the Sun headline ‘Girl discovers little green men’ – the media attention was intense and she said, ‘I felt like a piece of meat.’
When the converscience was thrown open to the audience, there were plenty of questions about women in science – apparently only 12% of astronomers are women in the UK, compared with over 30% in Argentina. She made a plea for more women to study science, and for engineers in particular – the Higg’s Boson couldn’t have been discovered without the engineers who built the Large Hadron Collider.
We soon returned to pulsars though and the question of how you would know if the pulses were from an alien intelligence. She replied that she’d expect some kind of code – a repeating pattern perhaps. Anyway, over 2000 pulsars have now been discovered, and still no little green men.
After the interval, the comedian Robin Ince took to the stage, and gave us a high-speed short version of his 3 hour science stand-up routine! Radio 4 listeners may be familiar with him through his programme The Infinite Monkey Cage, co-hosted with Professor Brian Cox – Ince told us how he is the ‘enthusiastic idiot, the antimatter version of him‘ (Cox, that is). He was actually quite funny (although a little loud and definitely hyperactive). He told some great true science stories including about Darwin’s nose, Richard Feynman and the aurora borealis, and he showed some stunning pictures from a Tumblr blog called WTF Evolution! – do check it out.
This was followed by a final converscience between the three – and with three sceptics on stage, the question of whether science and religion could ever be reconciled came up. Professor Close put his reply rather well – there are ‘Hows’ and ‘Whys’ – science is a how, religion is a why, Bell (who is a Quaker) added that she had no problems with it as they both have sense of wonder.
I was helping sell books at the event, and of course I succumbed to buying a copy of Ince’s tome – Robin Ince’s Bad Books Club: One man’s quest to uncover the books that taste forgot. Nothing to do with science, but it looks rather fun. I got him to sign my copy, and he wrote:
‘To Annabel, beware lighthouse keepers posing as novelists. Robin Ince.’
Night two of ATOM! to follow this evening – a lecture by Jim Al Khalili about quantum biology. I’m doing the book-stall again (natch!)