Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Happy Ada Lovelace Day 2010!

Have you hugged a woman in science and technology today? For example, Jocelyn Bell Burnell?

Let me tell you a little story. When I was a 2nd year undergraduate student up in the cold midwest, I spent a lot of time putting together a little radio telescope. We built it from scratch based on designs and schematics from MIT, and since I didn't have the faintest clue how much of it worked, it took a lot of time. But after a couple years, we finally got this sucker deployed on the roof and started taking real sky data--looking at the sun and comparing it to the sky, just to simply see if we could differentiate. And there, right smack in the midst of my absolutely blank sky data, was a beautiful, beautiful blip. Not just any sort of blip--an enormous blip with little nasty resonances that raised my continuum by several thousand kelvin.

I was totally thrilled at first, positive I had picked up on some obscure point source at alt 30, az 180 (those were observer's coordinates--not even horizon coordinates, much less equatorial or something useful). That lasted for 30 seconds, of course, until my advisor pointed out that it was probably a hefty dose of Radio Frequency Interference or even just a nasty reflection since the Chemistry Building was RIGHT THERE. But for a brief time I thought I might get lucky and follow in the footsteps of Jocelyn Bell.

Well, she didn't get lucky, exactly--she put a lot of work into investigating every aspect of her data (on miles and miles of paper! no digital stuff) produced by the new telescope she'd mostly assembled and deployed herself. And as a result of her work she uncovered a fantastically consistent pulsating signal and thusly discovered pulsars. After such an illustrious career opportunity as a graduate student, she moved on to work in pretty much every wavelength you can work in, win a slew of awards, and be a pretty cool professor.

For me, Jocelyn Bell Burnell is extra inspiring because she had in all regards quite an ordinarily successful career, despite having gotten into things in the 50s and 60s, a notoriously difficult time for female scientists. In fact in terms of professors she's remarkably normal--proof for me that despite having a bumpy beginning, it's possible to go places and do all the exciting science things that are the crux of pursuing such a career.

Shout out to Ada Lovelace, to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, to all the other women in science and technology, both past and present, who have helped to shape my own place in all of this and who continue to carve a place in the future.

Future posts include awesome pics, as soon as I get my camera up and running.

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