Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Who Discovered Pulsars, Was Just Awarded $3 Million for Her Work—More Than 40 Years After Nobel Prize Snub

Silicon Republic, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Silicon Republic, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Jocelyn Bell Burnell's story is an unfortunately familiar one: She changed the field of astrophysics with her discovery of pulsars in 1967, only for her work to be credited to a man when the Nobel Prize was awarded for that very achievement in 1974. Now, decades later, this part of Bell Burnell's career has received the happy ending that many overlooked female scientists never get. As The Guardian reports, the astrophysicist has been awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her work.

Pulsars, incredibly dense neutron stars that release powerful pulses of radio waves, went undetected until 1967, when Bell Burnell spotted one using a radio telescope she had helped build as a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University. Intrigued by the unusual bit of data, she returned to the observatory to see if she could spot the repetitive beams of radio waves once more. After about a month of watching the same part of the sky closely, the signals resurfaced.

She shared her discovery with Antony Hewish, her Ph.D. supervisor at the time. He initially dismissed the waves as manmade radio interference, but eventually Bell Burnell was able to convince him—and the rest of the science community—that the strange pulses were emitted by stars. The breakthrough shook the world of astrophysics, and even secured the Nobel Prize in 1974. But when it came time to announce the award, Hewish received all of the recognition and Bell Burnell was ignored.

The snub hardly marked the end of Bell Burnell's career. She's since been named the first female president of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and she helped found the Athena SWAN program, a charter that works to recognize and advance the careers of women working in STEM fields in either academic or research-based positions.

The latest institution to honor her, the Breakthrough Prize, is currently the most lucrative science prize in the world. In the past it has honored achievements in fundamental physics, including the discovery of the Higgs boson particle and gravitational waves. Jocelyn Bell Burnell plans to donate her $3 million in prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund Ph.D educations for students underrepresented in her field.

[h/t The Guardian]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

What Happens to Your Body If You Die in Space?

iStock.com/1971yes
iStock.com/1971yes

The coming decades should bring about a number of developments when it comes to blasting people into orbit and beyond. Private space travel continues to progress, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson championing civilian exploration. Professional astronauts continue to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) for scientific research. By the 2040s, human colonists could be making the grueling journey to Mars.

With increased opportunities comes the increased potential for misadventure. Though only 18 people have died since the emergence of intragalactic travel in the 20th century, taking more frequent risks may mean that coroners will have to list "space" as the site of death in the future. But since it's rare to find a working astronaut in compromised health or of an advanced age, how will most potential casualties in space meet their maker?

Popular Science posed this question to Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the ISS. According to Hadfield, spacewalks—a slight misnomer for the gravity-free floating that astronauts engage in outside of spacecraft—might be one potential danger. Tiny meteorites could slice through their protective suits, which provide oxygen and shelter from extreme temperatures. Within 10 seconds, water in their skin and blood would vaporize and their body would fill with air: Dissolved nitrogen near the skin would form bubbles, blowing them up like a dollar-store balloon to twice their normal size. Within 15 seconds, they would lose consciousness. Within 30 seconds, their lungs would collapse and they'd be paralyzed. The good news? Death by asphyxiation or decompression would happen before their body freezes, since heat leaves the body slowly in a vacuum.

This morbid scene would then have to be dealt with by the accompanying crew. According to Popular Science, NASA has no official policy for handling a corpse, but Hadfield said ISS training does touch on the possibility. As he explained it, astronauts would have to handle the the body as a biohazard and figure out their storage options, since there's really no prepared area for that. To cope with both problems, a commander would likely recommend the body be kept inside a pressurized suit and taken someplace cold—like where garbage is stored to minimize the smell.

If that sounds less than regal, NASA agrees. The company has explored the business of space body disposal before, and one proposition involves freeze-drying the stiff with liquid nitrogen (or simply the cold vacuum of space) so it can be broken up into tiny pieces of frozen tissue, which would occupy only a fraction of the real estate that a full-sized body would.

Why not eject a body, like Captain Kirk and his crew were forced to do with the allegedly dead Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Bodies jettisoned into space without a rocket to change their trajectory would likely fall into the wake of the spacecraft. If enough people died on a long trip, it would create a kind of inverted funeral procession.

Even if safely landed on another planet, an astronaut's options don't necessarily improve. On Mars, cremation would likely be necessary to destroy any Earth-borne bacteria that would flourish on a buried body.

Like most everything we take for granted on Earth—eating, moving, and even pooping—it may be a long time before dying in space becomes dignified.

[h/t Popular Science]

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