Shining Stars

Shining Pulsar: Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

On a chilly December night in 1967, Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell braced herself and set out towards a Cambridge field with a 81.5-megahertz radio telescope she had helped to construct over two years, hoping to discover quasars. Having recently spotted a regular and unclassified squiggle somewhere in the 121.8 metres of data produced every four days by the telescope, she was chasing down a hunch that she might have stumbled on something else.

“I switched on the high speed recorder and it went: blip, blip, blip, blip, blip. Clearly the same family, the same sort of stuff. … It finally scotched the Little Green Men hypothesis, because it’s highly unlikely there’s two lots of little green men, opposite sides of the universe, both deciding to signal to a rather inconspicuous planet earth, at the same time, using a daft technique and a rather commonplace frequency. It has to be some new kind \of star, unseen before, … a totally unexpected, totally new kind of object, behaving in a way that astronomers had never expected, never dreamt of. … I had, it transpired, discovered the first four examples of an unimagined kind of star — bizarre astral bodies that transmitted radio beams as they spun, which swept through space like the ray of a lighthouse. We called them pulsars.”                    

-Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. BBC Beautiful Minds, 2010 

Her discovery of pulsars – spinning, ethereal corpses of collapsed supernovas like giant metropolises beaming electromagnetic searchlights – changed our understanding of the universe and our place within it: “We are made of star stuff”, she says. Steven Hawking was excited by it and attended the seminar where the discovery was announced; it laid the path for the discovery of black holes, testing Einstein’s theory of relativity, and evidencing gravitational waves and exoplanets, through timing their pulsing cosmic rays.

However, the world has taken longer to recognise Professor Bell Burnell’s achievement and it was a long path even to that windy Cambridge field. On her first day at secondary school, boys were sent to the science lab and girls to study domestic science. Her parents insisted she switch classes, and she came top.

At the University of Glasgow, as the only woman taking Honours Physics, the boys made a hoo ha, stamping their feet, banging the tables, and wolf whistling every time she entered the lecture hall. This continued at Cambridge, where she was one of two women in her graduate program. As a result, like many other women in male-dominated areas, she developed Impostor Syndrome, which she credits for her diligence in checking her data and following her hunches.

This ability to turn lemons into lemonade is a hallmark of Professor Bell Burnell’s character, shaped in part by her Northern Irish background, where peace has taken time and patient negotiation. Although she was the first to identify and analyse pulsars, and was cited in a a paper announcing the discovery, in 1968, Professor Bell Burnell was excluded from the Nobel prize awarded to Anthony Hewish and another colleague, Martin Ryle. She plays down the unfairness: “If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves”.

This September, Professor Bell Burnell won a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her incredible discovery, and she’s donating her award to fund a scholarship to create a space for women, minorities and refugees in Physics, building on her work to increase the representation of underrepresented groups, co-founding the Athena Higher Education Awards in 2005. This is all based on another of her hunches:

“I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I was both female but also from the northwest of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English. So I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.”

– Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, BBC Beautiful Minds 2010 

Author

Lara Louise Bevan-Shiraz