(1943-)

Who Is Jocelyn Bell Burnell?

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a British astrophysicist and astronomer. As a research assistant, she helped build a large radio telescope and discovered pulsars, providing the first direct evidence for the existence of rapidly spinning neutron stars. In addition to her affiliation with Open University, she has served as dean of science at the University of Bath and president of the Royal Astronomical Society. Bell Burnell has also earned countless awards and honors during her distinguished academic career.

Early Life

Bell Burnell was born Susan Jocelyn Bell on July 15, 1943, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her parents were educated Quakers who encouraged their daughter’s early interest in science with books and trips to a nearby observatory. Despite her appetite for learning, however, Bell Burnell had difficulty in grade school and failed an exam intended to measure her readiness for higher education.

Undeterred, her parents sent her to England to study at a Quaker boarding school, where she quickly distinguished herself in her science classes. Having proven her aptitude for higher learning, Bell Burnell attended the University of Glasgow, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1965.

Little Green Men

In 1965, Bell Burnell began her graduate studies in radio astronomy at Cambridge University. One of several research assistants and students working under astronomers Antony Hewish, her thesis advisor, and Martin Ryle, over the next two years she helped construct a massive radio telescope designed to monitor quasars. By 1967, it was operational and Bell Burnell was tasked with analyzing the data it produced. After spending endless hours pouring over the charts, she noticed some anomalies that did not fit with the patterns produced by quasars and called them to Hewish’s attention.

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Over the ensuing months, the team systematically eliminated all possible sources of the radio pulses—which they affectionately labeled Little Green Men, in reference to their potentially artificial origins—until they were able to deduce that they were made by neutron stars, fast-spinning collapsed stars too small to form black holes.

Pulsars and Nobel Prize Controversy

Their findings were published in the February 1968 issue of Nature and caused an immediate sensation. Intrigued as much by the novelty of a woman scientist as by the astronomical significance of the team’s discovery, which was labeled pulsars—for pulsating radio stars—the press picked up the story and showered Bell Burnell with attention. That same year, she earned her Ph.D. in radio astronomy from Cambridge University.

However, in 1974, only Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work. Many in the scientific community raised their objections, believing that Bell Burnell had been unfairly snubbed. However, Bell Burnell humbly rejected the notion, feeling that the prize had been properly awarded given her status as a graduate student, though she has also acknowledged that gender discrimination may have been a contributing factor.

Life on the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Nobel Prize or not, Bell Burnell’s depth of knowledge regarding radio astronomy and the electromagnetic spectrum has earned her a lifetime of respect in the scientific community and an esteemed career in academia. After receiving her doctorate from Cambridge, she taught and studied gamma ray astronomy at the University of Southampton. Bell Burnell then spent eight years as a professor at University College London, where she focused on x-ray astronomy.

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During this same time, she began her affiliation with Open University, where she would later work as a professor of physics while studying neurons and binary stars, and also conducted research in infrared astronomy at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. She was the Dean of Science at the University of Bath from 2001 to 2004, and has been a visiting professor at such esteemed institutions as Princeton University and Oxford University.

Array of Honors and Achievements

In recognition of her achievements, Bell Burnell has received countless awards and honors, including Commander and Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1999 and 2007, respectively; an Oppenheimer prize in 1978; and the 1989 Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, for which she would serve as president from 2002 to 2004. She was president of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010, and has served as president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh since 2014. Bell Burnell also has honorary degrees from an array of universities too numerous to mention.

Personal Life

In 1968, Jocelyn married Martin Burnell, from whom she took her surname, with the two eventually divorcing in 1993. The two have a son, Gavin, who has also become a physicist.

A documentary on Bell Burnell’s life, Northern Star, aired on the BBC in 2007.


QUICK FACTS

  • Name: Jocelyn Bell Burnell
  • Birth Year: 1943
  • Birth date: July 15, 1943
  • Birth City: Belfast
  • Birth Country: Northern Ireland
  • Gender: Female
  • Best Known For: British astrophysicist, scholar and trailblazer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the space-based phenomena known as pulsars, going on to establish herself as an esteemed leader in her field.
  • Industries
    • Science and Medicine
    • Education and Academia
  • Astrological Sign: Cancer
  • Schools
    • University of Cambridge
    • New Hall
    • University of Glasgow
  • Nacionalities
    • Irish
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CITATION INFORMATION

  • Article Title: Jocelyn Bell Burnell Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/scientists/jocelyn-bell-burnell
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: March 29, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014

QUOTES

  • I’m one of the few women in science. I have pioneered that. One of the things I worry about is what that pioneering has done to me. I have had to fight quite hard most of the way through life.
  • The universe is very big—there’s about 100,000 million galaxies in the universe so that means an awful lot of stars. And some of them, I’m pretty certain, will have planets, where there was life, is life or maybe will be life. I don’t believe we’re alone.
  • When I got prizes, my husband wasn’t really as joyful as I thought he would be and I learned to play it more quietly when I got home having heard I got a prize. The marriage ended when Martin found another younger woman and went with her. It was quite a low time, money was tight. And I was very sad that it had broken up, I still loved him very much. It is, of course, lonelier being a single person.