Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins $3 million prize for discovering pulsars

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Enlarge / Pulsars are spinning neutron stars, the relics of massive stars gone supernova.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

When the Nobel Prizes roll around each year, inevitably there is chatter not just about who will win, but about those in the past who should have won, but didn’t, particularly women scientists. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars in the 1960s, is one of the names most commonly invoked. Now 75, she’s just been awarded something arguably better: a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

Originally founded in 2012, the Breakthrough Prizes are intended to be the “Oscars of Science.” In addition to the regular awards, the selection committee is also free to award a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics any time it wishes, and the honor need not be for recent discoveries. Bell Burnell is being honored “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.”

A quiet revolutionary

Bell Burnell was born in Northern Ireland in 1943. Her father, an architect, often took her to visit the Armagh Planetarium, which he helped design, and the staff there encouraged her to pursue astronomy. The family were Quakers, a religious sect that traditionally supports women’s education. There was just one problem: girls weren’t allowed to study science at the local school.

“Revolutions sometimes make other people uncomfortable, don’t they?”

“It was automatically assumed that the girls did domestic science, like cookery and needlework,” says Bell Burnell. “The boys did science, and there was no discussion and no other options.” This upset young Jocelyn, as well as her parents, who angrily phoned the headmaster to protest. So did two other sets of parents with daughters keen to study science. The headmaster caved, and when the class next convened, the three girls were there, inexplicably seated right by the teacher’s desk. “I don’t think he had ever taught girls before,” she says. “Clearly we were dynamite or something. Revolutions sometimes make other people uncomfortable, don’t they?” She got top scores in her exams.

But at 11, Bell Burnell failed the standard British examination that would have enabled her to pursue higher education. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that she learned the education authorities at the time set a higher passing mark for girls than for boys, because the girls were passing the test in far greater numbers. “Women didn’t have careers, they became housewives,” she says. “So the authorities became concerned about the number of girls cluttering up the academic stream, when it was the boys who needed that education.” (For those tempted to argue this no longer happens, just last month the Washington Post reported that Tokyo Medical University artificially lowered the entrance exam scores of women students to limit the number of female doctors in its program.)

“I was quite upset by failing that exam,” Bell Burnell admits, but her parents were undeterred, sending her to boarding school in England. There, she flourished under the tutelage of an inspiring physics teacher, and she continued to place at or near the top of all her classes. She majored in physics at Glasgow University, and was accepted to Cambridge University as a graduate student. “But there was still this failure lurking in my psyche,” she says.

A young Jocelyn Bell with the radio telescope array she helped build at Cambridge.
Enlarge / A young Jocelyn Bell with the radio telescope array she helped build at Cambridge.

Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

That and her northwestern Irish upbringing meant that Bell Burnell suffered from a bit of imposter syndrome when she finally made it to the elite campus of Cambridge in the 1960s to help her thesis advisor, Anthony Hewish, build a new kind of radio telescope. “I reckoned they made a mistake admitting me and they’d find their mistake and throw me out in due course,” she says. “But I’d had quite a fight to get there, and I wasn’t going to walk away from it.” It drove her to work harder than anyone else, and it was that painstaking persistence that led to her momentous discovery.

A “bit of scruff”

The new radio telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory was finished in July 1967 and the team immediately began taking data. It was Bell Burnell’s job to pore over the reams and reams of paper records (roughly 700 feet of it each week), hunting for any unusual anomalies in all those inky peaks representing incoming galactic radio waves. Within three weeks she found one: a faint signal coming from a particular area of the sky. It disappeared, then reappeared. Eventually she calculated that the signal arrived in 1.34 second intervals, like clockwork.

This was very strange, since the team quickly ruled out any known natural sources or other kinds of interference. She and Hewish even joked that it might be a signal from an alien civilization, dubbing the object “LGM-1” for “Little Green Men.” Then, just before Christmas, Bell Burnell spotted another signal, coming from a different part of the sky, this time arriving every 1.25 seconds. She found two more signals right after the holiday, also from different parts of the sky. Clearly this was not aliens, but a new type of star. She and Hewish dubbed them “pulsars.”

Today we know that pulsars are a type of neutron star, a close cousin to black holes. Whenever a massive star runs out of fuel, it explodes into a supernova. If it’s above a certain threshold in mass, it becomes a black hole. Below that threshold it becomes an ultra-dense neutron star. Pulsars are unusual in that they are spinning rapidly and have very powerful magnetic fields, so they emit very high energy beams of light. The star’s rotation makes it seem like those beams are flashing on and off like a cosmic lighthouse.

Everyone recognized that this was a momentous discovery. By the end of 1968, astronomers had discovered dozens more pulsars, giving them an invaluable new tool for exploring the universe. (There are now over 1000 known pulsars) The twinkling of the light from that very first pulsar alerted astronomers to the presence of interstellar material (the stuff between stars), and pulsars were used to confirm the first exoplanets. They could even further test the predictions of general relativity. Should astronomers ever discover a pulsar orbiting a black hole, its regular signal could slow down in response to the latter’s enormous mass, just as Einstein’s theory predicts.

The "bit of scruff" was actually a new kind of rotating neutron star.
Enlarge / The “bit of scruff” was actually a new kind of rotating neutron star.

National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Bell Burnell received her PhD in 1969. Hewish won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 for the discovery of the first pulsars, sharing the honor with fellow astronomer Martin Ryle. Noticeably absent from the citation: the woman who pored through all those records and made the actual discovery.

No Nobel for Bell

The omission infuriated many astronomers who felt Bell Burnell had been unfairly overlooked, but she herself is much more circumspect about that controversial decision, pointing out that she was still a graduate student at the time. “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them,” she said during an after-dinner speech at the New York Academy of Sciences in 1977.

“It took a long, long time until the physics community recognized that there was good physics in astronomy.”

That point is arguable, but there was another strategic reason for not awarding the prize to a lowly graduate student, according to Bell Burnell: it set a significant precedent. At the time, no astronomer had received a Nobel Prize, because there was no such prize for astronomy (nor is there one for mathematics). “It took a long, long time until the physics community recognized that there was good physics in astronomy, and it was the discovery of these pulsars that convinced them,” she says.

By her own account, Bell Burnell has led a rich, fulfilling, and fascinating life, with no shortage of other accolades showered upon her. So what does it matter if she lost the Nobel Prize?

Here’s one way it could have mattered. Shortly after the momentous discovery, she married Martin Burnell, a government officer whose job required them to move every few years or so in order for him to receive promotions. That itineracy severely curtailed Bell Burnell’s professional options. Every time the family relocated, she would write “a begging letter” to the head of whatever astronomy institution was in that locale, asking if there might be a part-time position for her. Such positions rarely involved original research, which she conducted in her limited spare time.

“I got the kinds of jobs you get when you write begging letters,” Bell Burnell says ruefully: public relations, or managing observatories, or coordinating research groups. While today she appreciates the wide range of experience she gained, “some of it was a bit hard to swallow.” She compares this stage of her career to a game of Snakes and Ladders. She would work her way up to a position of greater prestige and responsibility, only to move again and have to start right back at the bottom. Had she been a Nobel Laureate, the begging most certainly would have come from the institutions, and the offers would have been for research positions.

A fresh start

The couple divorced in 1993. Wiith her son, Gavin, all grown up (and a physicist in his own right at the University of Leeds), Bell Burnell had the freedom to pursue the kind of job she’d always wanted. She became head of the physics department in The Open University, a public educational and research institution geared toward part-time studies and distance learning. She built up her own research group in astrophysics, and relished teaching. Even though her students were often remote, and she rarely saw them, “The commitment they showed to studying was phenomenal, their persistence, and the hurdles they overcame.”

Bell Burnell has held a number of prestigious positions since, including president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the first female president of both the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the UK’s Institute of Physics. Just this week, she became Chancellor of the University of Dundee in Scotland, and maintains a visiting position at the University of Oxford so she can keep up with exciting new research developments, like the detection of merging binary black holes and neutron stars via gravitational waves, and mysterious fast radio bursts—spikes of intense energy picked up by radio telescopes. Astronomers are still puzzling over what might be emitting them.

Now she has a $3 million prize as the icing on the cake. And she has a message for young girls who look up at the night sky and dream of making the same kind of major discovery she did. “Don’t give up,” she says. “It won’t all be smooth, but it’s an incredibly exciting field, and if you can hang in there, lots of interesting stuff will come your way.”

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