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Decades After Being Passed Over for a Nobel, Jocelyn Bell Burnell Gets Her Due

Honored with a Special Breakthrough Prize, the astrophysicist says she’ll use the winnings to fund scholarships to support today’s outsiders in the field

Jocelyn Bell Burnell photographed in 2011 ( Geraint Lewis / Alamy Stock Photo)
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The Nobel Prize is infamous for snubbing women in the sciences. Just ask astrophysicist Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose groundbreaking discovery of pulsars was overlooked when her male advisor was awarded a Nobel in 1974. Now, as Sarah Kaplan and Antonia Noori Farzan report for the Washington Post, 51 years after Bell Burnell made the first documented observations of the energetically charged corpses of bygone stars known as pulsars, her contributions to the field are being honored with a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Bell Burnell is the fourth recipient of the prestigious award, whose previous honorees include Stephen Hawking, the seven CERN scientists whose leadership led to the discovery of the Higgs boson and the LIGO collaboration that detected gravitational waves.

“Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy,” says Edward Witten, the chair of the Breakthrough Prize selection committee, in a press release.

Bell Burnell was a doctoral student in physics at Cambridge University when she first noticed the series of mysterious, highly regular blips in the readout of a radio telescope in 1967. Further observations showed that the pulses were occurring every 1.3 seconds, creating barely perceptible “squiggles” in her data. Bell Burnell’s advisor, Antony Hewish, was, at first, skeptical of the findings, dismissing them as artifacts in her readings. But Bell Burnell was certain it was not just artifical noise. In early 1968, her work paid off with the publication of the first scientific paper documenting pulsars.

As Space.com writer Calla Cofield explains, pulsars, compact, spherical objects belonging to the "family of objects called neutron stars," emit beams of radiation from their two poles—but because pulsars rotate, these energetic jets appear to “pulse” as they pass in and out of view. Due to these precise pulses, astronomers can use pulsars as landmarks to map the cosmos, or as metronomes to track the timing of interstellar events millions of lightyears away. In the decades since their discovery, physicists have also used pulsars to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity and detect gravitational waves.

The discovery of pulsars was such a big deal that in 1974, Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for it alongside fellow astronomer Martin Ryle. It was the first time the prize had ever been awarded to the field of astronomy—but Bell Burnell’s contributions to the breakthrough find went unmentioned.

As Bell Burnell told Jane J. Lee at National Geographic in 2013, such an oversight was more or less par for the course: “The picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren't expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said.”

The Special Breakthrough Prize honors not only Bell Burnell’s landmark discovery, but also her constant engagement with the scientific community and beyond. In the past five decades, she has remained both an educator and researcher, serving as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and the first woman president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Currently, Bell Burnell is a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford and chancellor of the University of Dundee. She was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.

Bell Burnell will officially receive the award in November at the Breakthrough Prize’s 2019 ceremony in California’s Silicon Valley. However, she has already announced her plans to donate the $3 million associated with the Prize to Britain’s Institute of Physics to fund scholarships for women, underrepresented groups and refugees interested in studying physics. Drawing from her own experiences as a woman in science, Bell Burnell says she wants the money to help counter the “unconscious bias” that still pervades the field, reports Pallab Ghosh at BBC News.

“I feel that I made my contribution in part because I felt an outsider,” Bell Burnell explains to Mike Wall at Space.com. “Increasing diversity of the workforce actually allows all sorts of things to develop.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine. Website: katherinejwu.com

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