Jocelyn Bell was born on July 15, 1943 in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. From an early age she wanted to be an astronomer, and following her degree at the University of Glasgow, she went on to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. In Cambridge, in order for Professor Tony Hewish to study quasars, he designed a large radio telescope – not a dish, but 4.5 acres of land, with “more than a thousand posts, 2000 dipoles and 120 miles of wire and cable.” It took two years to build. Bell was involved with construction, and then she analysed all the data, which came in on a chart recorder.

In the data, Bell found an odd signal that looked like a ‘bit of scruff’. It didn't seem to be either a quasar or man-made interference, though Hewish insisted it was the latter. However, Bell persevered and was able to show it was a series of pulses about 1.3 seconds apart. Then she found another similar source, this time pulsing every 1.2 seconds. It seemed too fast a pulsation rate for anything as large as a star, so for a time they even wondered if it were extraterrestrial.

It turned out to be a spinning neutron star, the first evidence for a type of object that had been theorised in the 1930’s as an outcome of a supernova explosion. Exotic star remnants that spin like cosmic lighthouses, pulsars – as they were named – have been called “the universe’s gift to physics” for the ways they allow astronomers to test the predictions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The discovery resulted in a Nobel Prize for the Cambridge scientists who led the research — but not so much as a mention for Bell.

The omission led the great astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle to object that Burnell had been robbed of her deserved recognition — but Burnell herself maintains that missing out on a Nobel citation didn’t bother her. What did bother her, however, was the intense sexism she faced in her career, in both the scientific world and the press. Reporters covering the discovery of pulsars cast Burnell as little more than an attractive young girl who had helped with the research, and even asked her for her bust and hip measurements.

Bell married in 1968, taking the name Bell Burnell, and went on to do research in the fields of gamma-ray and x-ray astronomy. She has worked in many astronomical roles: tutor and lecturer at a number of universities and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh; project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii; and served at times as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and president of the Institute of Physics. In February 2018, she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee.

In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Following the announcement of the award, she decided to give the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students seeking to become physics researchers, the funds to be administered by the Institute of Physics. The resulting bursary scheme is to be known as the "Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund".

Sources: Lesa Moore & Ian Kemp, Andrew Blackwell, Wikipedia

In a short documentary by Emmy winner Ben Proudfoot, Bell Burnell tells her own story.


Mona Evans
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