Monday, August 27, 2007

Charles Schisler, pulsar pioneer

The cultural mythology of pulsar astronomy begins with the story of Jocelyn Bell, who discovered the tighter-than-clockwork radio pulses of PSR B1919+21 back in 1967.

Bell and her adviser, Anthony Hewish, were the first to interpret and publish the phenomenon, but they weren't the first to notice it. Charles Schisler, now 81, beat them to it: While stationed at Alaska's Clear Air Force Station, Schisler picked up the cosmic blips with the radar receivers of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. (He was supposed to be scanning the Siberian horizon for incoming Soviet warheads; evidently, his mind had opportunity to wander.)

Schisler actually took his discovery to an astronomer at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who calculated that Schisler's radio source was located in the Crab Nebula. Schisler returned to his station and started keeping a log of other blips; he believes he may have spotted as many as a dozen pulsars in the months before Bell went public with her discovery.

Schisler came forward with his story earlier this month, when the warning system was decommissioned. His story appeared in a Nature advance online publication last week.

According to Nature,

He says that he feels he deserves no credit for his work, but he still regrets that he was unable to share what he had seen. "I wish we had had a way to communicate with the scientific community," he says.

It's a good point: The original discovery of gamma ray bursts was made with military satellites--and classified for six years afterward. Who knows what discoveries are languishing in sealed files today?

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