Jocelyn Bell Burnell helped to reveal some of the mysteries of the universe.
In 1943, during the midst of WW2, Jocelyn Bell was born in Northern Ireland. Inspired by her father’s design for a planetarium, Jocelyn became curious about science and space. As a girl, she was initially denied the opportunity to study the sciences – but Jocelyn’s parents successfully petitioned her school to extend science education to female students.
Jocelyn soon acquired a passion for physics, and in 1965 she graduated with a science degree from the University of Glasgow. She went on to study for her PhD at Cambridge, and it was here that she became involved in the search for quasars.
Quasars are the brightest objects in the universe, but they’re exceptionally far away and therefore tricky to study. In the 1960s, Bell Burnell helped to build a radio telescope to study these distant objects.
In 1967, she was studying data from the radio telescope when she noticed an anomaly. We now know that this bit of ‘scruff’ on her results was, in fact, the first known evidence of a ‘radio pulsar’: a rotating neutron star.
Bell Burnell was only a postgraduate student at the time, but her discovery was truly ground breaking. In fact, the identification of radio pulsars earned a Nobel Prize, but not for the young woman who discovered them. In 1974, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Bell Burnell’s supervisor and another member of the team.
However, Bell Burnell continued to go from strength to strength. In the years that followed, she worked in several universities, and is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford. She served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
In 1999, Bell Burnell was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her services to astronomy, and in 2007, she was made a Dame. Today, Bell Burnell remains one of the most respected scientists of the modern era, and she continues to push at the frontiers of human knowledge.
Last updated: 15 March 2018