A Profile of Radio Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell
Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell at the opening ceremonies of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1967 when Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a graduate student, she found strange signals in a radio astronomy observation. Jokingly dubbed "Little Green Men", these signals were the evidence for the existence of the first known black hole: Cygnus X-1. Bell should have been awarded prizes for this discovery. Instead, her mentors were acclaimed for her discovery, gathering up a Nobel Prize for her efforts. Bell's work continued and today she is a revered member of the astrophysical community, in addition to being recognized by Queen Elizabeth with Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to astronomy.

Early Years of an Astrophysicist

Jocelyn Bell
Jocelyn Bell at the radio telescope in 1968. SSPL via Getty Images

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born on July 15, 1943, in Lurgan in Northern Ireland. Her Quaker parents, Allison and Philip Bell, supported her interest in science. Philip, who was an architect, was instrumental in the construction of Ireland's Armagh Planetarium.

Her parent's support was particularly important because, at the time, girls were not encouraged to study science. In fact, the school she attended, Preparatory Department of Lurgan College, wanted girls to focus on homemaking skills. At her parents' insistence, she was finally allowed to study sciences. Young Jocelyn then went on to a Quaker boarding school to complete her education. There, she fell in love with, and excelled at physics.

Upon graduation, Bell went to the University of Glasgow, where she earned a bachelor of science in physics (then called "natural philosophy"). She attended the University of Cambridge, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1969. During her doctoral studies, she worked at New Hall at Cambridge with some of the biggest names in astrophysics at the time, including her advisor, Antony Hewish. They were creating a radio telescope to study quasars, bright, distant objects that harbor supermassive black holes at their hearts.

Jocelyn Bell and the Discovery of Pulsars

Crab Nebula
Hubble Space Telescope image of the Crab Nebula. The pulsar that Jocelyn Bell discovered lies at the heart of this nebula. NASA

Jocelyn Bell's biggest discovery came when she was doing research in radio astronomy. She began examining some strange-looking signals in the data from the radio telescope she and others had built. The telescope's recorder output several hundred feet of print-outs each week and every inch had to be examined for any signals that seemed out of the ordinary. In late 1967, she started noticing an odd signal that seemed to emanate from just one part of the sky. It seemed variable, and after some analysis, she realized it had a period of 1.34 seconds. This "scruff" as she called it, stood out against the background noise that comes from all directions of the universe.

Pushing Against Objections and Disbelief

At first, she and her advisor thought it was possibly some kind of interference from a radio station. Radio telescopes are notoriously sensitive and so it wasn't a surprise that something might "leak" out from a nearby station. However, the signal persisted, and they eventually dubbed it "LGM-1" for "Little Green Men". Eventually Bell detected a second one from another area of the sky and realized she was truly onto something. Despite intense skepticism from Hewish, she reported her findings regularly.

Bell's Pulsar

LGM-1
A photograph by Jocelyn Bell Burnell of the strip of chart recording showing the pulsar signal she detected. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, from a paper "Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?"

Without knowing it at the time, Bell had discovered pulsars. This one was at the heart of the Crab Nebula. Pulsars are objects left over from the explosions of massive stars, called Type II supernovae. When such a star dies, it collapses in on itself and then blasts its outer layers to space. What's left compresses into a tiny ball of neutrons perhaps the size of the Sun (or smaller).

In the case of the first pulsar Bell discovered in the Crab Nebula, the neutron star is spinning on its axis 30 times per second. It emits a beam of radiation, including radio signals, that sweeps across the sky like the beam from a lighthouse. The flash of that beam as it swept across the radio telescope's detectors is what caused the signal.

A Controversial Decision

pulsar
X-ray image of the Crab Nebula, taken in 1999 just a couple of months after the Chandra X-ray Observatory went online. Perpendicular to the rings in the nebula are jet-like structures produced by high-energy particles blast away from the pulsar at the center. NASA/Chandra X-ray Observatory/NASA Marshall Science Flight Center Collection

For Bell, it was an amazing discovery. She was credited for it, but Hewish and astronomer Martin Ryle were awarded the Nobel Prize for her work. It was, to outside observers, a manifestly unfair decision based on her gender. Bell seemingly disagreed, saying in 1977 she didn't think it was proper for graduate students to get Nobel Prizes: 

"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...I myself am not upset about it, after all, I am in good company, am I not?"

For many in the science community, however, the Nobel snub belies a deeper problem that women in the sciences face. In hindsight, Bell's discovery of pulsars is a major discovery and should have been awarded accordingly. She persisted in reporting her findings, and for many, the fact that the men who didn't believe her eventually were awarded the prize is particularly unsettling.

Bell's Later Life

Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell at the 2001 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Getty Images

Shortly after her discovery and the completion of her Ph.D., Jocelyn Bell married Roger Burnell. They had a child, Gavin Burnell, and she continued working in astrophysics, although not with pulsars. Their marriage ended in 1993. Bell Burnell went on to work at University of Southampton from 1969 to 1973, then at University College London from 1974 to 1982, and also did work at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh from 1982 to 1981. In later years, she was a visiting professor at Princeton in the United States and then became Dean of Science at the University of Bath.

Current Appointments

Currently, Dame Bell Burnell is serving as visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford and is also chancellor of the University of Dundee. During her career, she has made a name for herself in the fields of gamma-ray and x-ray astronomy. She is well respected for this work in high-energy astrophysics.

Dame Bell Burnell continues working on behalf of women in science fields, advocating for their better treatment and recognition. In 2010, she was one of the subjects of the BBC Documentary Beautiful Minds". In it, she said,

"One of the things women bring to a research project, or indeed any project, is they come from a different place, they've got a different background. Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males for decades and women view the conventional wisdom from a slightly different angle—and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument, they can give a different perspective of what science is."  

Accolades and Awards

Despite being snubbed for the Nobel Prize, Jocelyn Bell Burnell has been awarded many prizes over the years. They include the appointment, in 1999 by Queen Elizabeth II, as Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), and Dame Commander of the Order British Empire (DBE) in 2007. This is one of Britain's highest honors.

She has also earned the Beatrice M. Tinsley prize from the American Astronomical Society (1989), been given the Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 2015, the Prudential Lifetime Achievement Award, and many others. She became President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002-2004.

Since 2006, Dame Bell Burnell has worked within the Quaker community, lecturing on the intersection between religion and science. She has served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Fast Facts

  • Born: July 15, 1943, in Lurgan, Northern Ireland
  • Parents: M. Allison and Philip Bell
  • Husband: Roger Burnell (m. 1968-1989)
  • Child: Gavin Burnell
  • Education:  BS Physics from University of Glasgow; Ph.D. from University of Cambridge in 1969.
  • Key Accomplishments: Discovered pulsars

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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "A Profile of Radio Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell." ThoughtCo, Mar. 29, 2018, thoughtco.com/jocelyn-bell-burnell-profile-4161029. Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2018, March 29). A Profile of Radio Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jocelyn-bell-burnell-profile-4161029 Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "A Profile of Radio Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jocelyn-bell-burnell-profile-4161029 (accessed April 22, 2018).