KEYWORDS: Radio pulsars, astronomy, astrophysics, radio telescope, neutron stars, Jocelyn Bell Burnell
SHE THOUGHT IT
As a twenty-four-year-old graduate at Cambridge, Northern Irish scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered not only the first radio pulsar ever noticed by humans, but the first four.
Always meticulous in her work, Bell Burnell devoted hours to hand analysing an enormous number of signals that were being sent through a large telescope on a daily basis. Despite handling over thirty meters of chart paper a day, Bell Burnell noticed some small and unusual markings, which she described as scruffs on paper. She shortly realized she had detected the first evidence of a pulsar1 (p. 51).
Pulsars or rapidly rotating spheres of nuclear matter were the first real evidence that neutron stars – “the remains of a luminous star at the end of its lifetime following its destruction in a supernova explosion”2 (p. 1) – existed. Before that there was just a theory about this kind of star, proposed by Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky in 19342 (p. 1).
Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery put forth fundamental findings about the evolution of stars and contributed to the development of whole new areas of astronomy, focused, namely, on super dense matters and strong magnetic fields3 (p. 357). However, the most meaningful implication of her findings was that if neutron stars could exist as a result of a collapsing substance so could black holes, following the explosion of an extremely massive star3 (p. 370). This deduction shaped our whole current knowledge of the universe. Despite being the first person to detect pulsars, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was excluded from the Nobel Prize in Physics, jointly awarded in 1974 to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish and astronomer Sir Martin Ryle.
Born on 15 July, 1943 in Belfast, Northern Ireland3 (p. 358), Susan Jocelyn Bell grew up in a country house, surrounded by nature, quite distant from other locals3 (p. 358). Lacking peers around, Bell Burnell spent much of her time reading. She began to develop an interest for astronomy while still in school, and once she visited the Armagh Observatory in Belfast, her curiosity became even stronger. She started learning about astronomy at home, through her father’s books3 (p. 361). Encouraged by her parents, Jocelyn Bell Burnell graduated from high school in 1961 and enrolled in the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1965. Later that year, she went to Cambridge University to work on her PhD in astronomy3 (p. 362).
Shortly after her arrival at Cambridge, Bell Burnell and five other students began working on the construction of a large radio telescope, a new project conducted by radio astronomer Antony Hewish3 (p. 364). After two years of building, the telescope was ready to use in July 1967. Bell became responsible for running the telescope and for the analysis of the enormous quantities of data it provided3 (p. 365). It wasn’t long until she discovered the first four radio pulsars3 (p. 365). At first occasionally and jokingly referred to as LGM (Little Green Men)1,3 (p. 51 and p. 367, resp.), Bell Burnell noticed that the unusual consistent signal could be found in different parts of the sky, which led her to identify it as a rapidly spinning neutron star. Until then there was no accessible evidence of the existence of such a celestial body3 (p. 369). The paper reporting the evidence of pulsars was signed by five authors, with Bell Burnell’s name listed second, and Hewish’s first.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell wasn’t completely aware of the great excitement that she caused in the fields of astronomy until a few years later. In 1968, she married Martin Burnell, with whom she has a son, and left radioastronomy to follow her husband, changing cities and part time jobs. She worked at Southampton University for five years (1968-1973) doing gamma ray astronomy; later she took a job at the University College of London (1974-1982), where she moved her focus to X-ray astronomy, and later at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh (1982-1991)1 (p. 51-52). In 1991, she became Professor of Physics at the Open University, her first permanent full time position in more than twenty years. She was also a visiting professor at Princeton University, became Dean of Science at the University of Bath in 2001, and is a visiting professor at Oxford University since 2013. She was president of the Royal Astronomical Society and of the Institute of Physics4 (p. 73-74).
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s work was extremely important to modern science. Her observation skills led to discoveries which allowed the development of several new fields of astronomy. The proof that neutron stars exist greatly expanded further studies and research, as well as its limits, opportunities and methods. As Bertsch McGrayne explains:
Since a neutron star is as dense as an atomic nucleus, it was like a giant laboratory of nuclear matter ten kilometres across. Each neutron star has much more nuclear matter than exists in all the atoms on Earth3 (p. 370).
Although underestimated on the one hand, she was (and still is) admired by a large number of scientists who, well aware of her breakthroughs, did not hesitate to publicly express their strong opinions about the discriminating omission of Bell Burnell from the Nobel Prize. While Hewish nonchalantly remarked that Bell was “just doing her job”3 (p. 373), many publicly criticized him by arguing that he did not discover or explain pulsars. Most scientists would (or perhaps did) ignore the same bit of scruff as just a machine error3 (p. 373).
Bell Burnell’s discovery provided her with many advantages while trying to find employment. Every time she moved to a new town with her family, professors were “willing to bend the rules” and find or create a position for her3 (p. 371).
SHE SAID IT
I believe the overlap between the sexes is much greater than the differences between them. I am unhappy with the assertion that women are better in particular area of work and men in others. It seems more accurate to say that some people are more skilled in certain areas than others.
cited by Bertsch McGrayne, Sharon (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington DC, Joseph Henry Press, 376.
Suffering can mature us and make us more sensitive to others; then through small deeds and kind actions we can interact with empathy, reassuring and helping others…. But pain is not part of a Grand Design and will not come to a purposeful ending unless we work at it to ensure that it does.
cited by Bertsch McGrayne, Sharon (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington DC, Joseph Henry Press, 377.
Science is a quest for understanding. A search for truth seems to me to be full of pitfalls. We all have different understandings of what truth is, and we’ll each believe, or we are in danger of each believing, that our truth is the one and only absolute truth, which is why I say it’s full of pitfalls. I think a search for understanding is much more serviceable to humankind, and is a sufficiently ambitious goal of itself.
cited in “Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Science is About Understanding, Not Truth”, Big Think, The Big Think Inc., <http://bigthink.com/words-of-wisdom/jocelyn-bell-burnell-science-is-about-understanding-not-truth> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2017).
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
1973: Albert A. Michaelson Medal, Franklin Institute of Philadelphia
1978: J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize, Center for Theoretical Studies, Miami, Florida
1986: Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize, American Astronomical Society (First Recipient)
1989: Herschel Medal, Royal Astronomical Society
1995: Jansky Lectureship before the National Radio Astronomy Observatory
1999: appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire
2000: Magellanic Premium, American Philosophical Society
2003: Fellow of the Royal Society
2006: William E. Gordon and Elva Gordon distinguished lecture at the Arecibo Observatory
2007: promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
2011: Grote Reber Medal, General Assembly of the International Radio Science Union, Istanbul, Turkey
2015: Royal Medal, Royal Society
2015: Woman of The Year Prudential Lifetime Achievement Award
Jocelyn Bell Burnell has also been awarded several honorary degrees.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Irish poet Maurice Riordan together edited a book titled Dark Matter: Poems of Space, published in the United Kingdom in 2008. The book is a selection of poems connected with astronomy and astronomers.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell is also a long-time Quaker, and often publicly talks about the link between religion and science. In her personal view, Quakerism is perfectly compatible with science4 (p.74). She delivered a lecture in 1989 at a Yearly Meeting in Aberdeen, which she later published in a book entitled Broken for Life. In 2013 she gave a lecture in Canberra, which was published in the book A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious? in which she reflects about the relation between Quakerism and cosmology5.
“Jocelyn Bell Burnell”, Beautiful Minds (7 Apr. 2010), dir. Jacqui Farnham, BBC2.
Crowe, Victoria (2015), Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, oil on linen, 127 × 114cm, Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Ignotofsky, Rachel (illus.) (2016), “Jocelyn Bell Burnell”, in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, New York, Ten Speed Press. Illustration.
Halloran, Lia (2016), Spiral, after Jocelyn Bell Burnell, cyanotype print/painted negative on paper, 101 .6 × 63.5cm.
Halloran, Lia (2016), Pulsar, after Jocelyn Bell Burnell, cyanotype print/painted negative on paper, 101.6 × 63.5cm.
WORKS BY JOCELYN BELL BURNELL
as Bell, Susan Jocelyn (1968), The measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method, University of Cambridge. PhD thesis.
with Hewish, A. / J.D.H. Pilkington / P.F. Scott / R.A. Collins, “Observation of a Rapidly Pulsating Radio Source” (1968), Nature, 217 (5130), 709-713.
with Pilkington, J.D.H. / A. Hewish / T.W. Cole, “Observation of some further Pulsed Radio Sources” (1968), Nature, 218 (5137), 126-129.
“Petit four*” (1977), Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 302, 685-689.
Broken for Life (1989), London, Quaker Home Service.
with Riordan, Maurice (ed.) (2008), Dark Matter: Poems of Space, London, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
“Pliers, pulsars and extreme physics” (2013), Astronomy & Geophysics, 45, 1.07-1.11.
A Quaker Astronomer Reflect: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious? (2013), The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Coroniti, Ferdinand V. / Gary A. Williams (2006), “Jocelyn Bell Burnell”, in Out of the Shadows: Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics, ed. Nina Byers and Gary Williams, New York, Cambridge University Press.
Gold, Lauren (2006), “Discoverer of pulsars (aka Little Green Men) reflects on the process of discovery and being a female pioneer”, Cornell Chronicle, <http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2006/07/jocelyn-bell-burnell-reflects-discovery-pulsars> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2017).
Greenstein, George (1983), Frozen Star, New York, Freundlich Books.
Levin, Janna (2016), Black Hole Blues And Other Songs, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
Rubin, Vera (1986), “Women’s Work”, Science, 58, 58-65.
- Oakes, Elizabeth H. (2007), Encyclopedia of World Scientists (Revised Edition), New York, Infobase Publishing.
- Glendenning, N.K. (2003), “Neutrons stars and pulsars”, in Proceedings of the International Workshop on Strong Magnetic Fields and Neutron Stars, ed. Herman J. Mosquera Cuesta, Hugo P. Rojas and Cesar A. Zen Vasconcellos, Havana, Cuba: ICIMAF, 1-10, < http://www.if.ufrgs.br/hadrons/glendenning.pdf> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2017).
- McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington DC, Joseph Henry Press.
- Hargittai, Magdolna (2015), Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries, New York, Oxford University Press.
- “Jocelyn Bell Burnell”, Quakers in the World, n.p., <http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/366> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2017).