Pulses and Pulsars – An introduction to time domain radio astronomy
Presented by Dame (Susan) Joycelyn Bell Burnell of the University of Oxford Astrophysics and Mansfield College. The presentation took place at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study’s (STIAS) Wallenberg Centre on the 19th of February 2014
I am always slightly apprehensive about attending talks by visiting academics of the stature of Dame Joycelyn Bell Burnell. Perhaps this apprehension stems from a lack of confidence in my own understanding of the field they are going to cover in their talks. There are also other possible issues like the quality of the presentation and how clearly the person will speak and, of course, the acoustics of the venue. The STIAS venue does not have good acoustics and experience has taught me that academics of international repute do not necessarily speak clearly or have well laid out talks using clear and legible slides. I had read that Jocelyn was a good presenter but, just to be safe, Lynnette and I made sure that we got seats close to the front (third row) and more or less on the centre line of the projection screen.
Jocelyn’s talk covered quite a lot of ground. She touched briefly on her original discovery of the first three pulsars during her PhD-studies and then talked at length on the characteristics of pulsars. She started off explaining how very high mass stars had short lives and eventually ended up as pulsars. Dame Bell Burnell made mention of their enormous masses, all crammed into balls with 10 km radii resulting in incredibly high densities and really freakish gravitational and magnetic fields. Jocelyn humorously sketched the possible consequences to humans if they should visit a pulsar and concluded that such a visit could definitely be injurious to one’s health and one’s credit card. We were taken on a visit to the only known pulsar that has a planetary system associated with it and also introduced to the short lived world of the brief radio pulses that are currently puzzling radio astronomers. Most of these reports originate from an Australian radio telescope and I was wondering whether Wombats or any of the other marsupials Down-Under squeak at around 700 Hz?
Lastly she looked at the SKA-project and briefly made mention of the greatly increased sensitivity the instrument would bring to the field of radio astronomy. After her talk Jocelyn fielded a large number of questions on topics not always related to the subject of her presentation.
Jocelyn’s presentation was excellent at all levels. Her ability to relate to and communicate with people was clearly demonstrated by the throngs of questioners that she patiently handled after the talk. Her patience even extended to having her picture taken with members of the Cape Center of ASSA, including Lynnette and myself.