In 1967, a graduate student named Jocelyn Bell found something she had never seen before. Data from a very large radio telescope monitoring some of the most distant things in the universe showed an unexpected type of pulse. At first, Bell thought the strange readings were "scruff," meaningless and probably caused by local interference. But the readings showed a very rapid and regular beat. Bell knew that rapid pulses indicated something small, while regular pulses indicated something large, so she had trouble understanding how a beat could be both rapid and regular. How could something be both small and large at the same time?
Bell and her fellow researchers jokingly referred to the unconfirmed source of the pulses as LGM, for "Little Green Men," a British expression for space aliens. After confirming that the telescope was operating correctly and eliminating man-made objects, such as orbiting satellites, or local interference, for example from transistor radios, as the source, Bell and her faculty supervisor, Anthony Hewish, determined the pulses were coming from a previously unidentified kind of star. They named it a "pulsar," short for "pulsating star."
Pulsars are a kind of neutron star -- a small, incredibly dense remnant of an exploding star. For a star much larger than our Sun, death can be violent. No longer able to withstand the force of its own gravity, it collapses in on itself. Pressure generated by the collapse builds until the star's outer gas layers are released in a huge explosion called a supernova. The star's inner core, however, implodes, squeezing protons and electrons even further together to form an incredibly dense neutron core. The resulting object, a neutron star, is only about 6 miles (10 km) in diameter yet can contain up to three times the mass of our Sun!
Not all neutron stars emit light; those that do are called pulsars. A neutron star is surrounded by an extremely powerful magnetic field. This field is so strong that it causes most of the light and energy that the star emits to be concentrated at the poles. As a pulsar rotates on its axis, radio waves, like beams from a lighthouse, appear to switch on and off as they sweep past Earth. Using a giant radio telescope, an astronomer can detect a pulse of radio waves -- with wavelengths up to a million times longer than visible light -- each time the beam sweeps past it.
So, what can be learned from studying pulsars? For one thing, pulsars rotate in such a predictable manner -- at the rate of twice a second -- that their pulses can be used to tell time. The discovery of pulsars has also provided insight into the death of stars.
Why did things such as police radios have to be eliminated before Jocelyn Bell could be sure she was hearing something from outer space? How do you think she eliminated them? Why do you think Jocelyn Bell was not included in the Nobel award? Do you think this would happen today? Although pulsars were predicted to exist for some time, why do you think it took so long to discover them?