“She Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won the Nobel Prize for It.”

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“She Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won the Nobel Prize for It.”

By: 
Ahmed Tewfik

It’s been a while since I last wrote a column for IEEE Signal Processing Magazine. I will try to address here some of the many questions and changes that arose since the beginning of the year. But before I do so, I would like to invite you to watch a short documentary by Ben Proudfoot with the exact title of this column: “She Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won the Nobel Prize for It.” This story is yet another reminder of how diversity is sine qua non for innovation. The documentary covers the discovery of pulsars in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Her discovery changed our view of the universe. Dr. Bell was a Ph.D. student at the time, studying under renowned astronomer Anthony Hewish. She overcame numerous barriers as the only woman in many classes and in the Ph.D. program. Her persistence and unconventional thinking led her to uncover pulsars when others saw only normal electromagnetic interference.

Despite the remarkable progress we have made since Dr. Bell was a student, lack of diversity remains one of our most pernicious and frustrating challenges in 2021. Diversity is an issue that we all profess to believe in. However, our actions often belie our declared values. Time and again this year, we were sent nomination slates for various positions, from representatives of the Society on cosponsored conferences to executive committee members that lacked technical, geographical, and gender diversity. I won’t belabor again the benefits of diversity. Nor will I detail the real systemic hurdles that more than half of mankind experiences within society, at work, home, or our own technical Society. We are all very familiar with these facts and may even be convinced that we understand them. Perhaps we do. But it appears to me that, in many cases, this understanding is abstract rather than visceral. Hence, it doesn’t reflect in our actions.

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