This is the story of the discovery of pulsars. It all happened in England in the 1960s when Ph. D. student Jocelyn Bell was using a radio telescope to study the effects of radio waves passing through the solar system, or interplanetary scintillation.
Ms. Bell noticed what she called ‘scruff’ coming from one part of the sky. What was interesting is this scruffy signal repeated as a steady, “Beep, beep, beep,” and then would go suddenly silent. Suspecting this beeping scruff was some kind of interference from nearby radio transmitters, she and her advisor investigated further.
They found that the signal tracked across the sky just like stars do, rising in the east and setting in the west. So could this signal come from a planet orbiting a star? Well, this signal was not shifting in frequency like the sound of an ambulence as it whizzes by (especially of the European variety). So what was this signal? Despite the nonplanetary origin, could this be the first detection of a signal from an alien civilization?!
A few more weeks passed, and in this time Ms. Bell discovered another source of beeping radio signals in a completely different part of the sky. It would be unlikely that two different alien civilizations would transmit radio signals to Earth at the same time and using the same frequency that the idea that the signals came from “Little Green Men” became less likely.
Still, when she published her findings in Nature magazine she did mention the remote possibility of the discovery of Little Green Men. The press were interested. They tracked her down, asking questions that didn’t really help them learn more about the discovery like, “Are you taller than Princess Margaret, or not quite?”
Ms. Bell and her advisor Prof. Tony Hewish sorted out that the source of the signal was coming from the remains of supernova explosions called pulsars. A pulsar, as a reminder, is a super dense object about the size of a small city with a mass larger than the Sun!
A Nobel Prize was awarded to Prof. Tony Hewish for the discovery of pulsars. Our heroine, meanwhile, was eventually named Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell as a result of her appointment as Commander of the British Empire (CBE). Just as exciting as the discovery of pulsars will, hopefully, someday be the actual discovery of Little Green Men and Women. Maybe one day….