Jocelyn Bell Burnell – the astrophysicist who was overlooked for the Nobel Prize.

This week I’m returning to one of my favourite subjects, women in science. Jocelyn Bell Burnell made one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the 20th century but have you heard of her before? Me neither.

Jocelyn was born in 1943 in Lurgan, Northern Ireland and developed an interest in astronomy from her father’s books. After failing her eleven-plus she went to Lurgan College and, to her dismay, found that she was not permitted to study science – when the boys went to the science labs, the girls were taught domestic science. Keen to encourage her, her parents sent her to a Quaker boarding school in England, where she developed a talent for physics. After school, Jocelyn attended Glasgow University and there, too, suffered discrimination. Female physics students were a rarity in the early sixties and she entered a lecture room she would have to endure whistles and jeers from the male students.

After gaining a degree in physics, Jocelyn went on to Cambridge to work on her PhD, where she assisted her supervisor, Antony Hewish, in constructing a large radio telescope, a physically demanding tax that involved swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer. When it was completed, two years later, she was given the responsibility of operating the telescope. In pre-computer days, analyzing data from the telescope was arduous: chart recorders generated 96 feet of paper a day for 6 months, and all this had to be analyzed by hand. When Jocelyn first noticed curious signals, pulsing regularly at a rate of about one pulse per second, she showed Antony, who thought they must be man-made interference. It even crossed his mind that the signal may originate from alien life and dubbed the signal LGM-1, for ‘little green man’. However, Jocelyn eventually convinced Antony that the they came from an object that was moving around the sky with the stars, and thus discovered pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that provided a significant step in the understanding of black holes.

Together with the rest of her research team, Jocelyn published her work in Nature journal under the name SJ Bell so at first no one realised her gender. Soon, this significant finding attracted the attention of world’s media, and Jocelyn and Antony gave many interviews. But while interviewers would ask Antony about the astrophysical significance of the findings, they asked Jocelyn personal questions about her boyfriends and even her vital statistics! Worse was to come. Despite the fact that Jocelyn had been the first to observe these stars, Antony Hewish and a fellow researcher, Martin Ryle, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, while Jocelyn was overlooked. Fellow astronomers were outraged on her behalf, and dubbed it the ‘No Bell’ prize. But Jocelyn’s contribution has now been widely acknowledged and since then she’s received every prize in her field.

Jocelyn refused to become embittered by the oversight and continued to break new ground for women. She became the first president of the Institute of Physics, was made a dame in 2007, and is now visiting professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Now 72, she still makes regular public appearances and encourages young women to study science.

 

 

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