Jocelyn Bell Burnell The Lady Who Discovered Pulsars
Jocelyn Bell Burnell

As an astrophysicist and a research assistant Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose full name is – Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, helped build a giant radio telescope and discovered Pulsars, giving the first direct evidence of the rapid rise of Neutron stars. In addition to affiliation with Open University, she has served as Dean of Science at the University of Bath and as President of the Royal Astronomical Society. Jocelyn Bell Burnell has earned countless awards and accolades during her distinguished academic career.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Biography

Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Photo: PA Archive/ Alamy
Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Photo: PA Archive/ Alamy

Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Birth and Education

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on July 15, 1943, to Susan Jocelyn Bell. Her parents were educated Quakers who encouraged their daughter’s early interest in science with books and visits to a nearby observatory. However, despite her curiosity to learn, Bell Burnell struggled in grade school and failed an exam measuring her readiness for higher education. Undeterred, her parents sent her to England to study at a Quaker boarding school, where she quickly made a mark in her science classes. After proving her aptitude for higher education, Bell Burnell attended the University of Glasgow, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1965.

In 1965, Bell Burnell began her undergraduate studies in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge. She worked with several research assistants and astronomers like Anthony Hewish (her thesis advisor and one of the students working under Martin Ryle). Over the next two years, she helped build a giant radio telescope to monitor quasars. By 1967, this radio telescope was operational, and Bell Burnell was tasked with analyzing the data it produced.

First Observation Of Pulsars By Jocelyn Bell Burnell 1
First Observation Of Pulsars By Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s Career and Research

After spending a lot of time on the data charts, she noted some discrepancies that did not fit with the patterns created by the quasars; she named them Hewish’s attention. In the following months, the team systematically eliminated all possible sources of the radio pulse, which they labeled Little Green Men, about their possible artificial origins – until they were able to cut, Neutron stars created. The fast-spinning broken stars are too small to form black holes.

Her findings were published in February 1968 and immediately became sensation news. The astronomical significance of the team’s discovery introduces as much to the novelty of a female scientist as the Pulsars label to vibrate radio stars. The press immediately picked up on this story and looked at Bell Burnell carefully. The same year she received her Ph.D. in radio astronomy. She was acquired from Cambridge University.

Nobel Prize controversy

In 1974, only Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. Many scientific community members raised their objections to Bell Burnell not receiving the Nobel Prize. But Bell Burnell politely rejected the notion, realizing that the award was appropriately awarded as a graduate student, although she also acknowledged that gender discrimination could be a contributing factor.

Radio astronomy and electromagnetic spectrum

Bell Burnell’s depth of knowledge about radio astronomy and the electromagnetic spectrum earned her a lifetime of respect in the scientific and education community. After receiving her doctorate from Cambridge, she taught and studied gamma-ray astronomy at the University of Southampton. Bell Burnell thus spent eight years as a professor at University College London, where she focused on X-ray astronomy. Around this time, she began her affiliation with the Open University, where she later worked as a professor of physics, studying neurons and binary stars, and did infrared astronomy research at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. Bell Burnell was dean of science at the University of Bath from 2001 to 2004 and has been a visiting professor at prestigious institutions such as Princeton and Oxford.

Awards and honors

Bell Burnell has received countless awards and accolades for her accomplishments, including Cr Commander and Dame of the Order of the British Empire. An Oppenheimer Award in 1978 and a 1989 Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, for which she served 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. In addition, Bell Burnell has many titles from an array of universities worth mentioning.

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