Belfast / Cambridge

born 1943

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is one of Ireland’s most distinguished scientists. She made one of the most sensational discoveries in astrophysics when, in 1967, she discovered the pulsar. She is popularly known for being overlooked for the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded jointly to her PhD supervisor Professor Anthony Hewish and Dr Martin Ryle, but her achievements in a life devoted to astrophysics have been recognised with several honorary doctorates, positions at prestigious international universities and research institutes, and in 2008, election as first woman president of the Institute of Physics.

As a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in November 1967, Bell Burnell discovered a new type of star, the radio pulsar. Cambridge was a leading centre for the new science of radio astronomy, which pushed the detection and observation of galaxies past the capabilities of optical telescopes. The signal that would cause a sensation in astrophysics appeared, in Bell Burnell’s words, as a “half an inch of scruff” on three and a half miles of paper printouts from the radio equipment.

The pulse that launched Bell Burnell’s career was a regular signal from 200 light years away, at approximately one pulse per second, initially named ‘Little Green Man 1’. How could an object with fixed co-ordinates emit a regular pulse, unless it was intelligent life? But Bell Burnell found pulses from other locations, putting to rest the short-lived alien life hypothesis.

The Cambridge team realised that the pulses were gravitational waves from a neutron star, the dense core left behind after a supernova. These compact planet-sized objects possess massive reserves of compressed energy and very strong magnetic fields, with radio waves emanating from the north and south poles rotating like a lighthouse beam. The discovery was published in Nature in 1968, with Bell Burnell’s name listed second of five authors after Hewish.

Controversy arose in 1974, when Hewish and Ryle were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Bell Burnell is stoical about her exclusion from the award: “At the time of the prize, I had a child about 18 months old and was trying to keep working and it was proving very difficult. In those days, mothers didn’t work. So, a bit of me said, yes, men get prizes, and women look after babies.” She was an outlier from the beginning of her career – the only woman on her degree course at Glasgow University, and one of only two women to hold university chairs in physics in the UK at the time of her appointment to the Open University in 1992.

Growing up during the ‘space race’, Bell Burnell’s lifelong fascination with astronomy was fostered through childhood visits to the Armagh Planetarium, and she performs her research in perfect balance with her Quaker faith. For her, the scientific process of theory, experimentation and result analysis perfectly complements Quakers’ lifelong faith formation. She cautions against the belief that science can reveal ultimate truths about life and the universe, ‘If we assume we have arrived, we stop searching. We stop developing.’ Her philosophical approach to science makes her a passionate ambassador for the sciences and one of the leading astrophysicists alive today.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this herstory.