About two months ago, the New York Times had a wonderful video on Jocelyn Bell, the Irish astronomer who discovered pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit regular pulses of radio waves.
Jocelyn recounted her upbringing in an educated Quaker family who, despite the prevailing culture that women should get married, have children and be quiet, supported their daughter in her quest to get a scientific education. That said, for a woman born in 1943, wanting to go on in science and to quality schools for grad study would prove to be a trial.
Jocelyn applied to Cambridge, not expecting to get in. She was accepted! (Jocelyn said she was convinced they were going to throw her out when they realized their mistake, but, she said, “I might as well try as hard as I could so I wouldn’t feel guilty” when it happened.)
She was the only “girl” in a class of 50 men. And it was the tradition that when a woman entered the classroom, she was greeted by catcalls and hoots. If she hadn’t been clear on what she wanted to do, she said, she would have taken some other path.
Her PhD project involved two years of constructing a radio telescope along with other grad students, to examine quasars. By the end of the two years, however, she and her advisor were the only ones left on the project. Though it was his idea and resources, she conceded, it was entirely her job to conduct the project and to record and analyze the data.
Analyzing the reams and reams of squiggles on mile-long printouts, she found a signature she couldn’t identify – a series of pulses a second or so apart. Her advisor said it was interference and of no consequence, but she knew it was not. Turning up the speed of the recorder to enlarge the squiggles revealed that this was a new and unexplained phenomenon. Only then did her advisor agree.
So important was the discovery of pulsars, a Nobel prize was awarded. However, because Jocelyn Bell was “only” a grad student and a woman, she was given no credit. the Nobel committee awarded the prize to her advisor and the head of the radio astronomy department. (Jocelyn says she didn’t really mind, because it was a thrill and an honor that pulsars were considered worthy of the prize.)
In fact, when she did get married, she left Cambridge in deference to her husband who had gotten a job elsewhere. One might have expected her to be bitter. But, in fact, she says that if she had stayed single, she probably would have gotten a position at Cambridge and lived a much narrower life. Instead, she has had many very interesting positions and made a difference by encouraging young people like herself who might otherwise have been discouraged.
An amazing, inspiring, appealing story of overcoming obstacles and being open to new experience.
As for myself, I must admit that I have a harder time staying so positive. Winding back my life to adolescence, I guess I expected that I would contribute something to the world. Hopefully in science, but maybe in literature. Instead, I moved from state to state, country to country, reinventing myself every time my husband got a new job. I got degrees in Psychology, Computer Science and Business. Worked as a secretary, taught English in Hong Kong and Russian in Georgia. Worked in the computer department of a French airline firm, a toy company in New Jersey, a shipping firm in New York City, and a retail chain in Seattle. Wrote nine books and six plays.
Sure, there were setbacks: my grad school supervisor, who didn’t acknowledge my work in our paper; and who gave away my fellowship when I returned from Hong Kong, where we’d gone for the year on my husband’s grant. Or the time I was fired from the Bon Marche Department store chain because of “complaints,” though I still say it was because I wasn’t nice enough to the vice president who chased me around the desk. Or trying interminably to get an agent for my books, where everyone said they wanted something different, but when they got it, they didn’t want it.
But there was the birth of our son, Daniel. And opening up the boxes of my newly published books. Swimming with the sting rays in the Cayman Islands. The births of our four grandchildren. Eating brie, in Brie, France. Meeting Stephen Gould, Elie Wiesel, John Kenneth Galbraith, Jane Goodall, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the president of Iceland, among many others, at universities my husband led.
Hopefully, one can attain wisdom by age 73 and put the whole gestalt of my life in context. Find some precepts that order it. Though, at the moment, I can’t seem to think of anything. No, Wait! Two silly things made an impression.
Ed Harris’ invocation from the film Apollo 13: “Failure is not an option.” Keep going, it seemed to say to me. Failure is not a reason to quit.
And, for some reason, an interview with Jeff Bezos some years ago, in which he was asked what he most believed in living his life. “No regrets,” he said. (Never mind that I can see a few things in his life that, perhaps, I would regret if I were he. But maybe that’s the point. You get to decide for yourself.)
And now there’s Jocelyn Bell, who made the sweetest of lemonade out of a bushel of lemons.
I suppose one can make a point that each one of these lessons begins with a negative. But they are positive in the face of a negative. If that makes any sense.
Looking back, I guess if I had stayed in one place, I might have attained my adolescent goal. But it would have been a narrow academic life. Instead, I have had many very interesting positions.
It’s all in the way you look at it, I suppose. Anyway, no regrets.