Jocelyn Bell-Burnell

Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
Credit: Wikimedia (User: Anrie)

Occupation: Astrophysicist

Year born: 1943

Research Areas: Radio-Astronomy, Pulsars

 

"Science doesn't always go forwards. It's a bit like doing a Rubik's cube. You sometimes have to make more of a mess with a Rubik's cube before you can get it to go right."

Source: Beautiful Minds (2010), television program BBC, UK, 7 April.

 

"I was almost driven to madness in considering and calculating this matter. I could not find out why the planet would rather go on an elliptical orbit. Oh, ridiculous me!"

Source: John Freely, Before Galileo: The Birth of Modern Science in Medieval Europe (2012), Ch. 58.

 

Early Life

Jocelyn was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. When she was young, the school she went to school would only let the boys study science. Jocelyn’s parents complained to the school and the rules were changed so that the girls could also study science. At the age of 11, Jocelyn failed an important exam. She had to pass the exam to have the chance to go on to study at university. So her parents sent her to a boarding school in York, England where she took the exam again and passed.

Jocelyn’s father was an architect. He had helped to design the local Armagh Planetarium. Jocelyn developed a love of astronomy during her visits there. She also had a very inspiring physics teacher at her school in York. After she left school, Jocelyn went to the University of Glasgow to study physics. She went on to get a PhD in astronomy from the University of Cambridge.

Career Highlights

During her PhD, Jocelyn helped to build a huge radio telescope. The aim of the project was to hunt for quasars. A quasar is a very bright galaxy, powered by a supermassive black hole. While she was carefully looking at the results from the telescope, Jocelyn saw something odd. In her notes she called it, “bits of scruff”. The "scruff" was a signal that repeated every second. Too fast to be made by a quasar. 

To start with, Jocelyn called the odd signals LGM-1 and LGM-2. The LGM stood for “Little Green Men” as there was a chance it could be made by aliens! Jocelyn and her supervisor, worked out the signals must be coming from a very dense star which was spinning very fast. They named these stars, pulsars. This came from combining the words “pulsating” and “stars”. We now know that pulsars are the left overs of huge stars. Stars which run out of fuel and explode as supernovae. The dense cores they leave behind are called neutron stars. The first signal Jocelyn found came from the neutron star PSR B1919+21. 

In 1974, astronomer, Martin Ryle along with Jocelyn’s supervisor, Anthony Hewish were given the Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of pulsars. Jocelyn was not included in the prize. Many scientists complained that Jocelyn should also have been named on the prize for the work she did. 

After her PhD, Jocelyn worked as an astrophysicist at several universities in the UK. She was also the project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii and a visiting professor at Princeton University, USA. In 2007, aged 64, she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen.

Legacy

Despite not getting a Nobel Prize, Jocelyn has been given many honours. In 2018, aged 75, she won the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. This is a £3 million prize. Jocelyn donated all the money "to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers". 

Other Interests

Jocelyn is an active Quaker.