Jo­ce­lyn Bell Bur­nell

The dis­cov­erer of the ex­otic cos­mic light­houses, pul­sars, who was over­looked for the No­bel prize

All About Space - - Stargazer -

Over half a cen­tury since her amaz­ing dis­cov­ery, Dame Jo­ce­lyn Bell Bur­nell has been recog­nised for her achieve­ments in as­tron­omy with a lu­cra­tive prize that she has de­cided she will do­nate to 'mi­nori­ties in sci­ence'.

Born on 15 July 1943 in Lur­gan, North­ern Ire­land, Bell Bur­nell has been ed­u­cated by many in­sti­tu­tions in the art of as­tron­omy. She gained her Bach­e­lor’s de­gree from the Univer­sity of Glas­gow, Scot­land, in 1965. Four years later she had re­ceived her doc­tor­ate in ra­dio as­tron­omy from the es­teemed Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, Eng­land. It was dur­ing her doc­tor­ate years that Bell Bur­nell made the dis­cov­ery that would change our un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse. She did this by in­tro­duc­ing a whole new type of stel­lar ob­ject: the pul­sar.

Dur­ing her years at the

Univer­sity of Cam­bridge she was study­ing un­der the tute­lage of Antony Hewish when they built and used a new ra­dio tele­scope. Upon tak­ing data, Bell Bur­nell no­ticed a highly un­usual and no­tably fre­quent de­tec­tion of ra­dio pulses. She'd chanced across the pul­sar; stars which have in­cred­i­ble masses squeezed into tiny spheres, ro­tat­ing in a way that re­leases en­ergy over all wave­lengths in ev­ery di­rec­tion in bursts. How­ever, due to their enor­mous dis­tances from Earth they are com­monly seen in the ra­dio end of the elec­tro­mag­netic spec­trum.

Con­fused, they spent much time try­ing to ex­plain the sig­nal, elim­i­nat­ing any out­side in­ter­fer­ence in the process. It wasn’t un­til she ob­served the sec­ond, third and fourth pul­sars that she could un­doubt­edly an­nounce the dis­cov­ery of a brand-new type of star. Con­tro­versy stemmed from this find­ing un­for­tu­nately, as Bell Bur­nell was over­looked for the No­bel prize in 1974, which was in­stead awarded to Hewish and fel­low as­tronomer Martin Ryle. This brought on ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ism in sci­ence, and in par­tic­u­lar physics, which Bell Bur­nell has been try­ing to fight ever since.

Most re­cently, Bell Bur­nell was awarded the Break­through Prize, which has also been given to pres­ti­gious in­di­vid­u­als such as Stephen Hawk­ing, CERN sci­en­tists that played a role in the dis­cov­ery of the Higgs Bo­son and the LIGO team that de­tected grav­i­ta­tional waves. Part of this award was also a hand­some £2.3 mil­lion ($3 mil­lion) prize. The award recog­nises the stu­pen­dous work Bell Bur­nell has achieved for the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity in dis­cov­er­ing this ex­otic star type that takes us an­other step closer to un­der­stand­ing the vast and mys­te­ri­ous uni­verse.

In the fight against the ‘un­con­scious bias’ that still re­sides within physics-based re­search jobs, Bell Bur­nell has re­cently do­nated her share from the Break­through Prize to fund the mi­nori­ties in sci­ence, such as woman, refugee stu­dents and un­der-rep­re­sented eth­nic mi­nori­ties, to boost their chances in forg­ing a ca­reer in physics. The in­cred­i­ble work Bell Bur­nell has achieved in sci­ence con­tin­ues to amaze and strives to see pos­i­tive changes in the physics com­mu­nity. With this re­cent prize win, that dream be­comes that bit more vi­able.

Bell Bur­nell’s dis­cov­ery rev­o­lu­tionised the field of ra­dio as­tron­omy, tap­ping itspo­ten­tial for knowl­edge

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