Unsung Heroines and Premature Glory

News Scientist  is currently featuring a story titled “Unsung Heroines: Five Women Denied Scientific Glory.” The woman scientists featured are: Hertha Ayrton, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Gerty Cori (an odd choice given she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize), Rosalind Franklin, and Lise Meitner.

For my money, of the stories told here, those of Burnell, Franklin, and Meitner are especially poignant. The little bio provided for Burnell includes a pair of interesting remarks made by her:

In 1967, as a postdoctoral physicist at the University of Cambridge, she discovered the first pulsar using a radio telescope she had built with her supervisor Antony Hewish, astronomer Martin Ryle and others….Bell Burnell was the second author named on the paper that announced the discovery (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/217709a0), but it was Hewish and Ryle who received a Nobel prize for it in 1974. She has made light of this, saying that “students don’t win Nobel prizes” and “an award to me would have debased the prize”.

I take Burnell to be making the point that Nobel Prizes–descriptively 0r normatively–recognize not isolated achievements, but a sustained record of scientific excellence. Of course, Burnell was not ‘only’ a “student” – she was a post-doctoral fellow, and thus already a practicing academic. Her concern about the prize being “debased” seems misplaced in two respects: 1) she had not made an accidental, flukish discovery 2) the Nobel Prize is awarded for both lifetime achievement and singular inventions or discoveries.  I suspect that besides her suggestion that the Nobel only recognize careers worth of scientific work, Burnell had also internalized some cultural prejudices about excessively early recognition serving as a disincentive for future effort. It is, if I may say so, an old-fashioned attitude.

Burnell’s remarks remind me of an incident in my own career. Shortly after I finished my doctorate and began work as a post-doctoral fellow, I was asked by a colleague, then working on a highly technical book on computational learning theory, whether I’d be interested in co-authoring a chapter that would explain the philosophical significance of the new formalisms being developed.  I would not be a co-author of the book, but would be listed as a co-author for that chapter alone. I agreed; my friend’s work was fascinating, and I looked forward to fleshing out its conceptual foundations. And the co-authorship line on the CV wouldn’t hurt one bit.

There was one small problem though: my colleague was working with two other logicians on his book. They needed to approve of my writing that chapter. One of them, a senior academic, refused. His stated reason was straightforward: I would be spoiled by such ‘early success’; I should not expect co-authored chapters in books to come my way so easily; I needed to build a ‘track record’ before I could earn such distinction.

As a reminder: I was a Ph.D, not a fledgling graduate student; I was not going to be made co-author of the book but only of one chapter.

I’ve had many head-shaking moments in my academic career; this was one of them.

3 thoughts on “Unsung Heroines and Premature Glory

  1. Hi Samir.

    I was also offered co-authorship in a book just after I got my PhD, and in it I used some material of my dissertation. The only small point I had to accept was a violation of the alphabetical order of the authors, and my name was displaced.



  2. Hi Samir.

    I was also offered co-authorship in a book just after I got my PhD, and in it I used some material of my dissertation. The only small point I had to accept was a violation of the alphabetical order of the authors. I did accept, but the third author was quite angry with me for that.



  3. I’ve been surprised here and there in my career by a “hazing” mentality in established academics who seemed otherwise very collegial and even nurturing. But on the question of paying one’s dues, they begrudged anyone achieving success with less pain and greater ease than they themselves had experienced.

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