Jocelyn Bell Burnell – astrophysicist credited with one of the most significant astrophysics discoveries of the 20th Century: the radio pulsar. The discovery, which she made as graduate student, earned a Nobel Prize in 1974 and it could one day form the basis of a “galactic positioning system” for navigating outside our solar system.
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. The first pulsar Bell discovered was at the heart of the Crab Nebula. Further observations showed that the pulses were occurring regularly every 1.3 seconds, creating barely perceptible “squiggles” in her data. Bell Burnell’s advisor, Antony Hewish, was, at first, sceptical of the findings, dismissing them as artefacts in her readings. But Bell Burnell was certain it was not just artificial noise. After monitoring the pulses using more sensitive equipment, the team discovered several more regular patterns of radio waves and determined that they were in fact emanating from rapidly spinning neutron stars. In early 1968, her work paid off with the publication of the first scientific paper documenting pulsars. Unfortunately, during the time of the big discovery J. B. Burnell was doing her PhD thesis (she was 24 years old) which led to her not getting the share she deserved of the Nobel Prize in 1974. It was the first time the prize had ever been awarded to the field of astronomy.
Pulsars are objects left over from the explosions of massive stars, called Type II supernovae. When such a star dies, it collapses in on itself and then blasts its outer layers to space. What’s left compresses into a tiny ball of neutrons. Pulsars 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.
Nowadays J. Bell Burnell is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Mansfield College. She was president of the Royal Astronomical Society and president of the Institute of Physics. In 2018 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee. During her career, she has made a name for herself in the fields of gamma-ray and X-ray astronomy. She is well respected for her work in high-energy astrophysics. Jocelyn has become a role model for young students and female scientists throughout the world. Her story was featured in the BBC Four’s Beautiful Minds, and BBC Two’s Horizon documented her discovery of ‘Little Green Man 1’. Did you know that originally the team researching the pulses jokingly dubbed them as LGM (for Little Green Men) in reference to the remote possibility that they represented attempts at communication by extraterrestrial intelligence?
In September 2018, she received the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth three million dollars, for her discovery of radio pulsars. She donated all of the money to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.
“One of the things women bring to a research project, or indeed any project, is they come from a different place, they’ve got a different background. Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males for decades, and women view the conventional wisdom from a slightly different angle — and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument, they can give a different perspective of what science is.”