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