On Aug. 6, 1967, Jocelyn Bell was looking at the squiggles drawn by a red pen on moving rolls of chart paper—the data from a radio telescope she was using to do her Ph.D. research on distant galaxies. She noticed one squiggle that looked odd. It was a “a bit of scruff,” she tells me from her office at Oxford University, where she’s now a visiting professor of astrophysics. The “scruff” was a series of sharp pulses that came every 1.3 seconds. Bell kept on observing it the following nights.
Over the next few months, Bell, her Ph.D. supervisor Antony Hewish, and a few colleagues kept the discovery tightly under wraps while they checked all the possible options, not least whether that was a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence. Bell, half-jokingly, recalls being less than thrilled at the possibility that a bunch of aliens were contacting our planet and hijacking her Ph.D. project just half a year before her thesis defense.
On Dec. 21, she went to look at the data one more time before leaving for the Christmas holidays. She spotted another squiggle, similar to the first one, coming from a different part of our galaxy. It came as a relief to Bell: There was no way a second group of aliens would also be signaling Earth from another part of the sky at the same moment. The pulses had to be coming from a new, unknown type of astronomical object. [Continue reading…]