Pulsar is first observed, November 28, 1967

-November 28, 2017

The first pulsar (pulsating star), a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of radiation, was observed on November 28, 1967, by graduate student Jocelyn Bell Burnell and professor Antony Hewish at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge, England.

The two radio astronomers noted that the observed emission from the pulsar was pulses separated by 1.33 seconds, originated from the same location in the sky, and kept to sidereal time.

In looking for explanation of their observation, they ruled out most astrophysical sources of radiation, like stars, because of their short periods of pulsing. Because the pulses followed sidereal time, the cause could not be man-made radio frequency interference. Instrumental effects were also ruled out when they double checked the observation through a different telescope.

In a 1977 issue of Cosmic Search Magazine, Burnell notes that she and her partner also ruled out alien communications: “We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?" 

Playfully, they nicknamed the signal LGM-1, for "little green men.” It was not until a second pulsating source was discovered in a different part of the sky that the "LGM hypothesis" was entirely abandoned.

Their pulsar was later dubbed CP 1919, and is now known by a number of designators including PSR 1919+21, PSR B1919+21, and PSR J1921+2153.

A paper announcing the Burnell and Hewish’s discovery had five authors. Hewish's name was listed first, with Burnell’s second. With the paper printed, Hewish was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics Nobel Prize, along with Martin Ryle, without the inclusion of Burnell as a co-recipient.

Although the slight caused much controversy and objection from the awardees themselves, Burnell was never awarded the Nobel. Still, her work has been honored by many other scientific organizations. She was also appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1999 and was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007.

2003 NASA photo of Vela Pulsar, a neutron star corpse left from a titanic stellar supernova explosion.

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For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note
: This article was originally posted on November 28, 2012 and edited on November 28, 2017.

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