Almost Famous: The Story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943) changed astronomy forever. But it was her doctoral advisor who won the Nobel Prize for it. This is her untold story.

Bypassed for the Nobel Prize for Physics, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell nevertheless won the Copley Medal, the Royal Society’s highest scientific award. She is only the second woman to be accorded this honor.

Growing up in a Quaker household, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was raised to believe that she had as much right to an education as anyone else. But as a girl in the 1940s in Northern Ireland, her enthusiasm for the sciences was met with hostility from teachers and male students. Undeterred, she went on to study radio astronomy at Glasgow University, where she was the only woman in many of her classes.

In 1967, Burnell made a discovery that altered our perception of the universe. As a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University assisting the astronomer Anthony Hewish, she discovered pulsars — compact, spinning celestial objects that give off beams of radiation, like cosmic lighthouses. The discovery of pulsars allowed astronomers to study an object never observed before, the neutron star. This kind of object is the only place where the behavior of matter at nuclear density can be observed albeit indirectly. Moreover, millisecond pulsars have allowed a test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in conditions of an intense gravitational field.

Pulsars are spinning neutron stars, the relics of massive stars gone supernova.
A young Jocelyn Bell with the radio telescope array she helped build at Cambridge.

While her Ph.D. advisor Antony Hewish would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974, Bell Burnell’s involvement was virtually ignored, or treated as a novelty. Worse, as Burnell recounted in 2015, “When the press found out I was a woman, we were bombarded with inquiries. My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest. Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”

But as Ben Proudfoot’s “The Silent Pulse of the Universe” shows, the world wasn’t yet ready to accept that a breakthrough in astrophysics could have come from a young woman.

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