Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The British astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars while completing her PhD at Cambridge University in the late 1960s. Using a radio telescope designed by her advisor Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle (both men later shared a Nobel prize for their work), Bell Burnell found strange radio pulses coming from a single point in the sky.

After a period of confusion about what was causing the pulses, Bell Burnell and her colleagues confirmed that pulsars, as the sources of pulses came to be known, are emitted by rapidly spinning neutron stars.

Image: Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1977 (credit: Robin Scagell/SPL)

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell


A British astronomer finds strange pulses coming from space.

About Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame (Susan) Jocelyn Bell Burnell, DBE, FRS, PRSE FRAS (born 15 July 1943) is a Northern Irish astrophysicist. As a postgraduate student, she discovered the first radio pulsars while studying and advised by her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, for which Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Martin Ryle, while Bell Burnell was excluded, despite having been the first to observe and precisely analyse the pulsars. Bell Burnell was President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010, and was interim president following the death of her successor, Marshall Stoneham, in early 2011. She was succeeded in October 2011 by Sir Peter Knight. Bell Burnell was elected as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in October 2014, succeeding Sir John Arbuthnott. In March 2013 she was elected Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.

The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Hewish's name was listed first, Bell's second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Martin Ryle, without the inclusion of Bell as a co-recipient. Many prominent astronomers expressed outrage at this omission, including Sir Fred Hoyle. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in their press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, cited Ryle and Hewish for their pioneering work in radio-astrophysics, with particular mention of Ryle's work on aperture-synthesis technique, and Hewish's decisive role in the discovery of pulsars. Dr. Iosif Shklovsky, recipient of the 1972 Bruce Medal, had sought out Bell at the 1970 International Astronomical Union's General Assembly, to tell her: "Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century."

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