Jocelyn Bell Burnell: An Underrated Star of Physics


Imagine you are part of a research group and, together with your colleagues, you make a discovery that is deemed “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century”. A few years later, this discovery is awarded with a Nobel Prize, but you are not mentioned. Sounds unfair? Well, that’s what happened to the Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

She was a research student at the time and discovered something unusual on her telescope, a regular pulsing. It was at first referred to as LGM-1, Little Green Man 1, because of course, even an astrophysicist’s initial thought was aliens. Since her supervisor, Antony Hewish, was sceptical about her findings believing it to be some man-made interference. She spent many nights at the telescope and produced immense amounts of data. The strange phenomenon then turned out to be a fast spinning neutron star called a pulsar. Her research built the foundation for their discovery and further exploration.

Pulsars are important in several fields of astronomy. They can be used to test certain theories of physics, allow for more accurate time-keeping than atomic clocks, and they could be used for an independent navigation system in space.

As the discovery was deemed revolutionary, her supervisor and other researchers were awarded with the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974 – except for Bell Burnell. She herself was not offended by this omission, because she believed it to be mainly because she was only a research assistant. Even if her contribution was substantial, she thought it was not an extraordinary enough case to justify an assistant being given the Nobel Prize. And she concluded: “[…] I am in good company, am I not!”

Her remark is painfully accurate. Only three women have ever received a Nobel Prize in physics (and 51 in all the categories combined). The contributions of many female scientists are overlooked or at least not recognised in the same dimension as their male counterparts’.

But Bell Burnell’s genius did not remain underappreciated forever. Her work was recognised many years later when she was given the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018 for her discovery of pulsars, worth £ 2.3m. Even though she was never angry about being overlooked by the Nobel committee, she did face many obstacles in her career due to sexism. Therefore, she always advocated equality in science and she donated the money from the Breakthrough Prize to Britain’s Institute for Physics. It will be used to fund scholarships for women, ethnic minorities and refugees who want to pursue physics.

Here’s to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a brilliant physicist and an overall amazing person!

[Christina Schröck]

[Image credit: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images]

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