Jocelyn Bell Burnell Changed Astronomy Forever; Her Ph.D. Advisor Won the Nobel Prize for It

A few years back, we highlighted a series of articles called The Matilda Effect — named for the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose 1893 essay “Woman as an Inventor” inspired historians like Cornell University’s Margaret Rossiter to recover the lost histories of women in science. Those histories are important not only for our understanding of women’s contributions to scientific advancement, but also because they tell us something important about ourselves, whoever we are, as filmmaker Ben Proudfoot suggests in his “Almost Famous” series of short New York Times documentaries.

Proudfoot casts a wide net in the telling, gathering stories of an unknown woman N.B.A. draftee, a would-be first Black astronaut who never got to fly, a man who could have been the “next Colonel Sanders,” and a former member of the Black Eyed Peas who quit before the band hit it big. Not all stories of loss in “Almost Famous” are equally tragic. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story, which she herself tells above, contains more than enough struggle, triumph, and crushing disappointment for a compelling tale.




An astronomer, Bell Burnell was instrumental in the discovery of pulsars — a discovery that changed the field forever. While her Ph.D. advisor Antony Hewish would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974, Bell Burnell’s involvement was virtually ignored, or treated as a novelty. “When the press found out I was a woman,” she said in 2015, “we were bombarded with inquiries. My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest. Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”

In the film, Burnell describes a lifelong struggle against a male-dominated establishment that marginalized her. She also tells a story of supportive Quaker parents who nurtured her will to follow her intellectual passions despite the obstacles. Growing up in Ireland, she says, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. But at that stage, there weren’t any women role models that I knew of.” She comments, with understandable anger, how many people congratulated her on her marriage and said “nothing about making a major astrophysical discovery.”

Many of us have stories to tell about being denied achievements or opportunities through circumstances not of our own making. We often hold those stories close, feeling a sense of failure and frustration, measuring ourselves against those who “made it” and believing we have come up short. We are not alone. There are many who made the effort, and a few who got there first but didn’t get the prize for one unjust reason or another. The lack of official recognition doesn’t invalidate their stories, or ours. Hearing those stories can inspire us to keep doing what we love and to keep pushing through the opposition. See more short “Almost Famous” documentaries in The New York Times series here.

Related Content: 

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

How the Female Scientist Who Discovered the Greenhouse Gas Effect Was Forgotten by History

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Person to Win Twice, and the Only Person in History to Win in Two Different Sciences

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Beautiful Footage of the Rarely Seen Glass Octopus

First things first: the plural of octopus is not “octopi,” it’s octopuses.

Now, drop everything and watch the video above. It’s an extremely rare sighting of a glass octopus, “a nearly transparent species, whose only visible features are its optic nerve, eyeballs and digestive tract” notes the Schmidt Ocean Institute. “Before this expedition, there has been limited live footage of the glass octopus, forcing scientists to learn about the animal by studying specimens found in the gut contents of predators.”

Limited sightings did not stop the poet Marianne Moore from seeing something like this wondrous creature in her mind’s eye:

it lies “in grandeur and in mass”
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
pseudo-podia
made of glass that will bend-a much needed invention-
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
feet thick,
of unimagined delicacy.

Glass octopuses have green dots and do not live under “snow-dunes” but in the warm Pacific waters beneath the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) near Samoa, and elsewhere Schmidt Ocean Institute scientists captured rare footage and “identified new marine organisms,” writes Colossal, while recording “the sought-after whale shark swimming through the Pacific Ocean.”

We must admit, Moore got the sense of awe just right….

Marine scientists from around the world embarked on the 34-day expedition on the ship Falkor. Using “high-resolution mapping tools,” Ocean Conservancy writes, they surveyed “more than 11,500 square miles of sea floor” and observed “not one but two glass octopuses,” with a remote operated vehicle (ROV) called SuBastian.

See several views of the glass octopuses — the stars of the show — and dozens more rare and beautiful creatures (such as perennial internet favorite the Dumbo octopus, below, from a 2020 expedition) at the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Instagram. “We’re at the beginning of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development,” remarked chief scientist of the Falkor expedition Dr. Randi Rotjan of Boston University. “[N]ow is the time to think about conservation broadly across all oceanscapes, and the maps, footage, and data we have collected will hopefully help to inform policy and management in decision making around new high seas protected areas.” Learn more at the Schmidt Ocean Institute here.

via Laughing Squid

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A Radical Map Puts the Oceans–Not Land–at the Center of Planet Earth (1942)

The Biodiversity Heritage Library Makes 150,000 High-Res Illustrations of the Natural World Free to Download

When an Octopus Caused the Great Staten Island Ferry Disaster (November 22, 1963)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

757 Episodes of the Classic TV Game Show What’s My Line?: Watch Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong, Salvador Dali & More

What would the host and panelists of the classic primetime television game show What’s My Line? have made of The Masked Singera more recent offering in which panelists attempt to identify celebrity contestants who are concealed by elaborate head-to-toe costumes and electronically altered voiceovers.

One expects such shenanigans might have struck them as a bit uncouth.

Host John Charles Daly was willing to keep the ball up in the air by answering the panel’s initial questions for a Mystery Guest with a widely recognizable voice, but it’s hard to imagine anyone stuffing former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt into the full body steampunk bee suit the (SPOILER) Empress of Soul wore on The Masked Singer’s first season.




Mrs. Roosevelt’s Oct 18, 1953 appearance is a delight, especially her pantomimed disgust at the 17:29 mark, above, when blindfolded panelist Arlene Francis asks if she’s associated with politics, and Daly jumps in to reply yes on her behalf.

Later on, you get a sense of what playing a jolly parlor game with Mrs. Roosevelt would have been like. She’s not above fudging her answers a bit, and very nearly wriggles with anticipation as another panelist, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, begins to home in on the truth.

While the roster of Mystery Guests over the show’s original 17-year broadcast is impressive — Cab CallowayJudy Garland, and Edward R. Murrow to name a few — every episode also boasted two or three civilians hoping to stump the sophisticated panel with their profession.

Mrs. Roosevelt was preceded by a bathtub salesman and a fellow involved in the manufacture of Bloodhound Chewing Tobacco, after which there was just enough time for a woman who wrote television commercials.

Non-celebrity guests stood to earn up to $50 (over $500 today) by prolonging the revelation of their professions, as compared to the Mystery Guests who received an appearance fee of ten times that, win or lose. (Presumably, Mrs. Roosevelt was one of those to donate her honorarium.)

The regular panelists were paid “scandalous amounts of money” as per publisher Bennett Cerf, whose “reputation as a nimble-witted gentleman-about-town was reinforced by his tenure on What’s My Line?”, according to Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office.

The unscripted urbane banter kept viewers tuning in. Broadway actor Francis recalled: “I got so much pleasure out of ‘What’s My Line?’ There were no rehearsals. You’d just sit there and be yourself and do the best you could.”

Panelist Steve Allen is credited with spontaneously alighting on a breadbox as a unit of comparative measurement while questioning a manhole cover salesman in an episode that featured June Havoc, legend of stage and screen as the Mystery Guest (at at 23:57, below).

“Want to show us your breadbox, Steve?” one of the female panelists fires back off-camera.

The phrase “is it bigger than a breadbox” went on to become a running joke, further contributing to the illusion that viewers had been invited to a fashionable cocktail party where glamorous New York scenemakers dressed up to play 21 Professional Questions with ordinary mortals and a celebrity guest.

Jazz great Louis Armstrong appeared on the show twice, in 1954 and then again in 1964, when he employed a successful technique of light monosyllabic responses to trick the same panelists who had identified him quickly on his initial outing.

“Are you related to anybody that has anything to do with What’s My Line?” Cerf asks, causing Armstrong, host Daly, and the studio audience to dissolve with laughter.

“What happened?” Arlene Francis cries from under her pearl-trimmed mask, not wanting to miss the joke.

Television — and America itself — was a long way off from acknowledging the existence of interracial families.

“It’s not Van Clyburn, is it?” Francis ventures a couple of minutes later….

Expect the usual gender-based assumptions of the period, but also appearances by Mary G. Ross, a Cherokee aerospace engineer, and physicist Helen P. Mann, a data analyst at Cape Canaveral.

If you find the convivial atmosphere of this seminal Goodson-Todman game show absorbing, there are 757 episodes available for viewing on What’s My Line?’YouTube channel.

Allow us to kick things off on a Surreal Note with Mystery Guest Salvador Dali, after which you can browse chronological playlists as you see fit:

1950-54

1955-57

1958-60

1961 -63

1964-65

Related Content: 

Salvador Dalí Gets Surreal with 1950s America: Watch His Appearances on What’s My Line? (1952) and The Mike Wallace Interview (1958)

How American Bandstand Changed American Culture: Revisit Scenes from the Iconic Music Show

How Dick Cavett Brought Sophistication to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Classic Interviews Online

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Sounds of Space: An Interplanetary Sonic Journey

There are those of us who, when presented with dueling starships in a movie or television show, always make the same objection: there’s no sound in outer space. In the short film above, this valid if aggravatingly pedantic charge is confirmed by Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division. “Sound requires molecules,” she says. “You have to be able to move molecules with the sound waves, and without the molecules, the sound just doesn’t move.” Space has as few as ten atoms per cubic meter; our atmosphere, by contrast, has more ten trillion trillion — that’s “trillion trillion” with two Ts.

No wonder Earth can be such an infernal racket. But as every schoolchild knows, the rest of solar system as a whole is hardly empty. In twenty minutes, the The Sounds of Space takes us on a tour of the planets from Mercury out to Pluto and even Saturn’s moon of Titan, not just visualizing their sights but, if you like, auralizing their sounds.




These include real recordings, like those of Venusian winds captured by the Soviet lander Venera 14 in 1981. Most, however, are scientifically informed constructions of more speculative phenomenon: a “Mercuryquake,” for instance, or a “Methanofall” on Titan.

A collaboration between filmmaker John D. Boswell (also known as Melodysheep) and Twenty Thousand Hertz, a podcast about “the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds,” The Sounds of Space was recently featured at Aeon. That site recommends viewing the film “as an exploration of the physics of sound, and the science of how we’ve evolved to receive sound waves right here on Earth.” However you frame it, you’ll hear plenty of sounds the likes of which you’ve never heard before, as well as the voices of Earthlings highly knowledgable in these matters: Glaze’s, but also those of NASA Planetary Astronomer Keith Noll and Research Astrophysicist Scott Guzewich. And as a bonus, you’ll be prepared to critique the sonic realism of the next battle you see staged on the surface of Mars.

via Aeon

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Plants Emit High-Pitched Sounds When They Get Cut, or Stressed by Drought, a New Study Shows

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Carl Sagan Tells Johnny Carson What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chauvinism in It” (1978)

Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy? Different fans make different arguments, some even opting for a third way, claiming that the ever-multiplying stories of its ever-expanding fictional universe belong to neither genre. Back in 1978, the year after the release of the original Star Wars film (which no one then called “A New Hope,” let alone “Episode Four”), the question was approached by no less a popular scientific personality than Carl Sagan. It happened on national television, as the astronomer, cosmologist, writer, and television host in his own right sat opposite Johnny Carson. “The eleven-year-old in me loved them,” Sagan says in the clip above of Star WarsClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and other then-recent space-themed blockbusters. “But they could’ve made a better effort to do things right.”

Everyone remembers how Star Wars sets its stage: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But right there, Sagan has a problem. Despite its remoteness from us, this galaxy happens also to be populated by human beings, “the result of a unique evolutionary sequence, based upon so many individually unlikely, random events on the Earth.”




So Homo sapiens couldn’t have evolved on any other planet, Carson asks, let alone one in another galaxy? “It’s extremely unlikely that there would be creatures as similar to us as the dominant ones in Star Wars.” He goes on to make a more specific critique, one publicized again in recent years as ahead of its time: “They’re all white.” That is, in the skins of most of the movie’s characters, “not even the other colors represented on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges.”

Carson responds, as anyone would, by bringing up Star Warscantina scene, with its rogue’s gallery of variously non-humanoid habitués. “But none of them seemed to be in charge of the galaxy,” Sagan points out. “Everybody in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us. I thought there was a large amount of human chauvinism in it.” That no medal is bestowed upon Chewbacca, despite his heroics, Sagan declares an example of “anti-Wookiee discrimination” — with tongue in cheek, granted, but pointing up how much more interesting science fiction could be if it relied a little less on human conventions and drew a little more from scientific discoveries. Not that Star Wars is necessarily science fiction. “It was a shootout, wasn’t it?” Carson asks. “A Western in outer space.” Johnny never did hesitate to call ’em as he saw ’em.

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Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

Carl Sagan on the Importance of Choosing Wisely What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)

Blade Runner: The Pillar of Sci-Fi Cinema that Siskel, Ebert, and Studio Execs Originally Hated

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Billion Years of Tectonic-Plate Movement in 40 Seconds: A Quick Glimpse of How Our World Took Shape

We all remember learning about tectonic plates in our school science classes. Or at least we do if we went to school in the 1960s or later, that being when the theory of plate tectonics — which holds, broadly speaking, that the Earth’s surface comprises slowly moving slabs of rock — gained wide acceptance. But most everyone alive today will have been taught about Pangea. An implication of Alfred Wegener’s theory of “continental drift,” first proposed in the 1910s, that the single gigantic landmass once dominated the planet.

Despite its renown, however, Pangea makes only a brief appearance in the animation of Earth’s history above. Geological scientists now categorize it as just one of several “supercontinents” that plate tectonics has gathered together and broken up over hundreds and hundreds of millennia. Others include Kenorland, in existence about 2.6 billion years ago, and Rodinia, 900 million years ago; Pangea, the most recent of the bunch, came apart around 175 million years ago. You can see the process in action in the video, which compresses a billion years of geological history into a mere 40 seconds.




At the speed of 25 million years per second, and with outlines drawn in, the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates becomes clearly understandable — more so, perhaps, than you found it back in school. “On a human timescale, things move in centimeters per year, but as we can see from the animation, the continents have been everywhere in time,” as Michael Tetley, co-author of the paper “Extending full-plate tectonic models into deep time,” put it to Euronews. Antarctica, which “we see as a cold, icy inhospitable place today, actually was once quite a nice holiday destination at the equator.”

Climate-change trends suggest that we could be vacationing in Antarctica again before long — a troubling development in other ways, of course, not least because it underscores the impermanence of Earth’s current arrangement, the one we know so well. “Our planet is unique in the way that it hosts life,” says Dietmar Müller, another of the paper’s authors. “But this is only possible because geological processes, like plate tectonics, provide a planetary life-support system.” Earth won’t always look like it does today, in other words, but it’s thanks to the fact that it doesn’t look like it did a billion years ago that we happen to be here, able to study it at all.

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The Plate Tectonic Evolution of the Earth Over 500 Million Years: Animated Video Takes You from Pangea, to 250 Million Years in the Future

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Find the Address of Your Home on Pangaea: Open Source Project Lets You Explore the Ancient Land Masses of Our Planet

What Earth Will Look Like 100 Million Years from Now

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

 

The Acoustics of Stonehenge: Researchers Build a Model to Understand How Sound Reverberated within the Ancient Structure

It’s impossible to resist a Spinal Tap joke, but the creators of the complete scale model of England’s ancient Druidic structure pictured above had serious intentions — to understand what those inside the circle heard when the stones all stood in their upright “henge” position. A research team led by acoustical engineer Trevor Cox constructed the model at one-twelfth the actual size of Stonehenge, the “largest possible scale replica that could fit inside an acoustic chamber at the University of Salford in England, where Cox works,” reports Bruce Bower at Science News. The tallest of the stones is only two feet high.

This is not the first time acoustic research has been carried out on Stonehenge, but previous projects were “all based on what’s there now,” says Cox. “I wanted to know how it sounded in 2200 B.C., when all the stones were in place.” The experiment required a lot of extrapolation from what remains. The construction of “Stonehenge Lego” or “Minihenge,” as the researchers call it, assumes that “Stonehenge’s outer circle of standing sarsen stones — a type of silcrete rock found in southern England — had originally consisted of 30 stones.” Today, there are 17 sarsen stones in the outer circle among the 63 complete stones remaining.




“Based on an estimated total 157 stones placed at the site around 4,200 years ago, the researchers 3-D printed 27 stones of all sizes and shapes,” Bower explains. “Then, the team used silicone molds of those items and plaster mixed with other materials to re-create the remaining 130 stones. Simulated stones were constructed to minimize sound absorption, much like actual stones at Stonehenge.” Once Cox and his team had the model completed and placed in the acoustic chamber, they began experimenting with sound waves and microphones, measuring impulse responses and frequency curves.

What were the results of this sonic Stonehenge recreation? “We expected to lose a lot of sound vertically, because there’s no roof,” says Cox. Instead, researchers found “thousands upon thousands of reflections as the sound waves bounced around horizontally.” Participants in ritual chants or musical celebrations inside the circle would have heard the sound amplified and clarified, like singing in a tiled bathroom. For those standing outside the monument, or even within the outer circle of stones, the sound would have been muffled or dampened. Likewise, the arrangement would have dampened sound entering the inner circle from outside.

Indeed, the effect was so pronounced that “the placement of the stones was capable of amplifying the human voice by more than four decibels, but produced no echoes,” notes Artnet. This suggests that the site’s acoustic properties were not accidental, but designed as part of its essential function for an elite group of participants, “even though the site’s construction would have required a huge amount of manpower.” This is hardly different from other monumental ancient religious structures like pyramids and ziggurats, built for royalty and an elite priesthood. But it’s only one interpretation of the structure’s purpose.

While Cox and his team do not believe acoustics were the primary motivation for Stonehenge’s design — astrological alignment seems to have been far more important — it clearly played some role. Other scholars have their own hypotheses. Research still needs to account for environmental factors — or why “Stonehenge hums when the wind blows hard,” as musicologist Rupert Till points out. Some have speculated the stones may have been instruments, played like a giant xylophone, a theory tested in a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the Royal College of Art, but this, too, remains speculative.

As the great Stonehenge enthusiast Nigel Tufnel once sang, “No one knows who they were, or what they were doing.” But whatever it sounded like, Cox and his colleagues have shown that the best seats were inside the inner circle. Read the research team’s full article here.

Related Content: 

The Ancient Astronomy of Stonehenge Decoded

An Artist Visits Stonehenge in 1573 and Paints a Charming Watercolor Painting of the Ancient Ruins

The Spinal Tap Stonehenge Debacle

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch an Accurate Reconstruction of the World’s Oldest Computer, the 2,200 Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, from Start to Finish

There’s nothing like an ancient mystery, especially one as seemingly insoluble as the origins of “the world’s first computer,” the Antikythera mechanism. Discovered off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, the corroded collection of gears and dials seemed fake to scientists at first because of its ingeniousness. It has since been dated to 100 to 150 BC and has inspired decades of research and speculative reconstruction. Yet, no one knows who made it, and more importantly, no one knows how it was made.

“The distance between this device’s complexity and others made at the same time is infinite,” says Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at the University College of London. “Frankly, there is nothing like it that has ever been found. It’s out of this world.”




The expression should not make us think of ancient aliens — the Antikythera mechanism contains more than enough evidence of human limitation, showing a geocentric model of the cosmos with the only five planets its maker would have known.

The 2,000-plus year-old device continues to reveal its secrets, including hidden inscriptions found during CT scans of the object, as Smithsonian reported in 2015. The mechanism is “similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time.”

If the Antikythera mechanism is a “celestial clock,” who better to design and build its reconstruction than a clockmaker? That is exactly what we see in the videos above, created for the clockmaking YouTube channel Clickspring. Using the best scientific model of the mechanism to date — published this year by Dr. Tony Freeth and colleagues of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project — Clickspring shows how the device might have fit together and makes educated guesses about the right placement of its dozens of small parts.

You can see a preview of the Antikythera reconstruction project at the top, watch the full project above, and see individual episodes showcasing different phases of construction on YouTube. The model “conforms to all the physical evidence,” Freeth writes, “and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.” What no one can figure out, however, is just how the ancient Greek artisans who made it shaped precision metal parts without lathes and other modern tools of the machine-makers trade. Researchers, and clockmakers, may have pieced together the Antikythera puzzle, but the mystery of how it came into existence at all remains unsolved.

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How the World’s Oldest Computer Worked: Reconstructing the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism

Researchers Develop a Digital Model of the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, “the World’s First Computer”

Modern Artists Show How the Ancient Greeks & Romans Made Coins, Vases & Artisanal Glass

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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