When we think of famous Irish people who have made profound contributions to society, we tend to think of the arts. Ireland does boast more than its share of writers, actors, musicians and artists. But this island can also be very proud of its contributions to science, particularly those of astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who celebrates her 76th birthday on July 15th.
Born in Lurgan, near Belfast, she grew up near the Armagh Observatory and spent much time there as a child. Her parents, who were Quakers, encouraged her early love of science, and their home was filled with books.
Despite her enthusiasm for science, school was reportedly a struggle. But school then was not as it is now. At that time, girls were required to study cooking and sewing, but science was not on their curriculum at her school until parents – including the Bells – objected. Accounts of her life say Bell Burnell failed some important school exams, but perhaps it is more accurate to say her primary school failed her.
Bell Burnell overcame the challenges of such a deeply sexist education system with her parents’ support and her own passionate determination. But she did not forget them as her own career florished. She still works to encourage women to pursue their interest in science.
She attended a Quaker girls boarding school in York, England for secondary school, where she excelled in science. Many of us have that one special teacher who inspired and encouraged us to reach our potential, and for Bell Burnell, it was her physics teacher. She then went on to earn an honors Bachelor of Science in physics at the University of Glasgow.
Bell Burnell’s Big Discovery
Bell Burnell got her PhD at Cambridge. It was there she made the discovery of a lifetime. She was part of the team that developed a new radio telescope. While scrupulously pouring over reams of data from this telescope, she noticed something strange: a very tiny repeating pulse of a radio wave. Her supervisor initially dismissed it as a radio signal from Earth, but Bell Burnell was not satisfied with that explanation. And she was right.
We now know those signals were pulsars, natural radiation from small, dense neutron stars far in space. Pulsars are now used to help map the heavens. Burnell Bell eventually convinced her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, that the signals were not from humans.
They wrote a paper about the discovery, and it was such a brilliant breakthrough in human understanding of the cosmos that it earned the Nobel Prize in 1974. There was just one problem. Bell Burnell wasn’t named for the prize. Hewish was. She accepted this slight because she was a graduate student at the time of her discovery. Bell Burnell went on to become the first woman president of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She’s been the president of the Royal Astronomical Society. She also established a program to encourage and support women studying science – the Athena Swan charter.
Eyes on the Prize
But the Nobel committee made amends decades later. In 2018, they awarded Bell Burnell a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. (Stephen Hawking is another recipient of this occasional award.) In her typical way, Bell Burnell is donating the money to fund scholarships to help marginalized people get PhDs in physics. She noted to media that her own omission from the Nobel prize in 1974 was because she was a young woman and stressed that boosting diversity in science can lead to more important breakthroughs.
During a 1999 visit to NASA, Bell Burnell encouraged young people to pursue careers in science and described the field as “great fun”.