Archive for Jocelyn Bell Burnell

R.I.P. Tony Hewish (1924-2021)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a grim day when I have three R.I.P. posts on this blog, but I learned this afternoon via email that Nobel Prize winning Cambridge radio astronomer Antony Hewish has passed away on 13th September this year at the age of 97. You can read a full obituary at his college website here so I’ll keep my own remarks brief.

Tony Hewish was one of the pioneering generation of radio astronomers who were involved with the development of radar during World War 2 and went on to apply the knowledge they had gained to explore the Universe. He is most famous for winning the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics (jointly with Martin Ryle) for the discovery of pulsars. Although the Nobel Foundation were clearly wrong not to give a share to Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who actually made the discovery). Indeed I would argue that Hewish should have declined the award unless Jocelyn Bell Burnell had been included. These errors should not however detract from Hewish’s scientific achievement in conceiving and constructing the Interplanetary Scintillation Array with which the discovery was made.

I’ll just add on a personal note that when I was a final-year undergraduate student at Cambridge (in the Lent Term in 1985) I took what was called a Major Option in Observational Cosmology which was lectured by Tony Hewish. As a matter of fact I still have the notes. Here’s the file opened at a random page:

It’s very out of date now, of course. A lot has happened in cosmology since 1985! At the time, though, I enjoyed the course very much and that affected my choice of potential areas in which to do my PhD. Although I ended up doing Theoretical rather than Observational Cosmology, at Sussex rather than at Cambridge, this course of lectures played a big part in me starting out on a career in that field.

Rest in peace Tony Hewish (1924-2021).

Batting for Astronomy

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by telescoper

I was too busy teaching this morning to watch streaming video of the meeting of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee I referred to in a previous post, but then, being a confirmed Luddite,  I rarely manage to get such things to work properly anyway. Or is it just that Parliament TV isn’t very good? Anyway, I did get the chance to do a fast-forward skim through the coverage, and also saw a few comments on Twitter.

By all accounts the two big hitters for astronomy, Professor Roger Davies and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell both played good innings, watchful in defence, parrying the odd tricky delivery, but also scoring impressively when the opportunity arose. Dame Jocelyn, for example, got in a nice comment to the effect that the shortfall in observatory funding was equivalent to one banker’s bonus.

Any other reactions are welcomed through the comments box.

The e-astronomer (whose pseudonym is Andy Lawrence)  has already blogged about the event, including a delightfully pithy summary of the written evidence submitted beforehand . But then Andy’s never reluctant to take the pith when the opportunity arises…

The thing that depresses me most is the contrast between the forthright and well-considered performances of leading figures from the astronomy establishment with the bumbling efforts of the Chief Executive of STFC, Keith Mason. As Andy Lawrence points out, some of the latter’s responses to questions at the last session of the inquiry were downright misleading, giving the impression that he didn’t know what he was talking about. And that’s the more generous interpretation. Combine the poor grasp of detail with his generally unenthusiastic demeanour, and it becomes easy to see that one of the main reasons for the ongoing crisis at STFC is its Chief Executive.

I’ve been told off repeatedly in private for posting items on here that are severely critical of Professor Mason, sometimes on the grounds that my comments are ad hominem, a phrase so frequently misused on the net that it is in danger of losing its proper meaning. It’s not an “ad hominem” attack to state that a person is demonstrably useless at their job. I stand  my ground. He should have gone years ago.

Unfortunately we still have to wait another year or so before a replacement Chief Executive will be installed at STFC. Good people elsewhere – both  inside and outside science – have lost or are losing their jobs, because of the recession and cutbacks, through no fault of their own. Reality is much less harsh if you’re at the top.


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