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Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell Shares Story of Science and Perseverance

Bell burnell featured

Talk Was Part of Simons Center’s Della Pietra Lecture Series

Bell burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell

As a postgraduate student at Cambridge, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. The discovery eventually earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 — for her doctoral advisor and male co-researcher. Bell, despite leading the research, was not one of the prize’s recipients.

On February 14, Bell shared highlights of her storied career as the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics hosted a public Della Pietra Lecture titled “Tick, Tick, Tick, Pulsating Star, How We Wonder What You Are!” Though she is widely known as the first person to discover radio pulsars, her story is one that transcends scientific advancement, and one in which determination, perseverance and hard work helped her overcome the social barriers that existed for women at the time — and today.

Bell, Professorial Fellow in Physics at the University of Oxford, was born in Northern Ireland, and earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Glasgow. “Much to my surprise, I found myself in Cambridge in 1965 to pursue a PhD,” she said. “I’ve got an Irish accent, I come from the wrong part of the country, and I’m one of a very few women surrounded by young men full of confidence. It was quite daunting.”

Though she’d already earned a physics degree, she was nevertheless overcome with feelings of self-doubt.

“I thought ‘they’ve made a mistake recruiting me, I’m not bright enough for this place,’” she told the audience in the Della Pietra Family Auditorium. “They’re probably going to throw me out when they discover they’ve made a mistake. So what am I going to do about it? I decided that until they throw me out, I will work my very hardest so that when they do throw me out, I won’t have a guilty conscience.”

Science is thankful that that day never came.

Only two years later she would discover pulsars — rapidly rotating neutron stars that blast out pulses of radiation at regular intervals ranging from seconds to milliseconds. The accomplishment helped earn her doctoral advisor, British radio astronomer Antony Hewish, and Martin Ryle, a Cambridge professor and Bell’s co-researcher, the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. The snub was typical of the gender bias of the day.

“I was the only female in the class — 59 men and me,” she said. “It was the tradition in Glasgow that whenever a woman entered the lecture theatre, all the guys would whistle and stamp and catcall.”

Though there were several other women in the program at the beginning, for the final two years, Bell was the only woman in the class, having to face the horrendous taunting on her own.

“I learned to control my blushing because if you blushed they made even more noise,” she said. “That was quite an achievement. I could enter stone-faced and pretend I hadn’t heard anything and take a seat. If those things happened at a university today, the authorities would certainly say something, but back then they didn’t. I’ve become quite tough surviving that lot.”

Artwork of a pulsar
Illustration of a pulsar. (Getty Images)

Just two years before Bell entered Cambridge, astronomers had discovered the first quasar, the blazing centers of active galaxies that are powered by a supermassive black hole feeding on enormous quantities of gas. By 1965, only about 20 quasars had been identified. Bell spent the next two years helping build a gigantic radio telescope that could detect more of them. Covering a four-acre patch of British countryside, the radio telescope relied on 120 miles of wire and cable to receive incoming radio signals. A strip chart recorder captured those signals on seemingly endless spools of paper.

“I spent the first two of my three years helping build that thing,” she said. “And for the final year I was left on my own to operate it. At that time, the University of Cambridge had one computer. It occupied a whole room and it had less memory than your laptop. And that was for the whole university. It was experimental.”

By the end of the survey, Bell had more than five kilometers of paper charts, of which she says she checked every single millimeter. But one day in November 1967, she noticed a pulse she couldn’t explain. And then a second one, and then more. These strange signals from the world of radio astronomy would mark the beginning of the groundbreaking pulsar research that would lead to a Nobel Prize.

In later years, Bell would state that she thought the fact that she was both a graduate student and a woman hurt her standing in terms of receiving a Nobel prize. The decision continues to be debated to this day. But while Bell didn’t win a Nobel, she has since been recognized for other science honors, including the 2018 Breakthrough Prize, which brought with it a $3 million prize that she used to create the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, an innovative fund designed to encourage greater diversity in physics by assisting women physics PhDs and students from other underrepresented groups for whom she has always been a strong advocate.

“There are several sides to Jocelyn Bell’s story,” said Luis Alvarez-Gaume, director of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. “On the human side, the extreme injustice done by the Nobel committee in granting their coveted prize to her advisor and a radio astronomer who worked with her to build the radio antenna at Cambridge. On the scientific side, this was one of the most interesting discoveries in astrophysics in the 20th century. Jocelyn has also been an advocate against the discrimination of women and other minorities in the scientific and university circles for decades and is a major role model for the younger generations.”

Bell estimates that about 5,000 pulsars have been discovered so far.

“All the ones we know are either in our galaxy or in a very nearby galaxy,” she said. “They are fantastically accurate timekeepers. Nature has given us some wonderful clocks, which we can use to do physics experiments.”

During her visit, Bell also gave a lecture titled “Women in Astrophysics” to women graduate students and researchers, and another lecture for local high school students.

Robert Emproto

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