Who Should Get Credit for the Discovery of Pulsars?

A much-discussed example of the difficulties associated with allocating credit between beginning and established researchers was the 1967 discovery of pulsars by Jocelyn Bell, then a 24-year-old graduate student. Over the previous two years, Bell and several other students, under the supervision of Bell’s thesis adviser, Anthony Hewish, had built a 4.5-acre radio telescope to investigate scintillating radio sources in the sky. After the telescope began functioning, Bell was in charge of operating it and analyzing its data under Hewish’s direction. One day Bell noticed “a bit of scruff” on the data chart. She remembered seeing the same signal earlier, and by measuring the period of its recurrence, she determined that it had to be coming from an extraterrestrial source. Together Bell and Hewish analyzed the signal and found several similar examples elsewhere in the sky. After discarding the idea that the signals were coming from an extraterrestrial intelligence, Hewish, Bell, and three other people involved in the project published a paper announcing the discovery, which was given the name “pulsar” by a British science reporter.

Many argued that Bell should have shared the Nobel Prize awarded to Hewish for the discovery, saying that her recognition of the signal was the crucial act of discovery. Others, including Bell herself, said that she received adequate recognition in other ways and should not have been so lavishly rewarded for doing what a graduate student is expected to do in a project conceived and set up by others.



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