The Discovery of Pulsars

Jocelyn (Bell) Burnell was born in Northern Ireland in 1943. Her father was an architect and one of his design projects became the stimulus for Jocelyn’s career. Her father was working on the Armagh Planetarium and Jocelyn would go with him on his visits. The planetarium staff was very supportive of her and encouraged her interest in astronomy.

When she was preparing for college, her parents had to get special permission for her to study science subjects. After failing her qualifying exam for college, Jocelyn found a more supportive school experience and began to thrive. She eventually obtained a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Cambridge.

When she graduated, she worked with a team of researchers studying quasars. Quasars are extremely bright centers of galaxies in their infancy. When Jocelyn was looking at the chart recorders, she noticed an anomaly in the data. A signal was regularly pulsing.

The signal was baffling until it was discovered to be a new kind of star. At first, the star was playfully called a Little Green Man because it seemed to form some type of extraterrestrial signal. When a second source was found, they began to realize that what they discovered was actually a new form of solar object which they called a pulsar.

Her supervisor was skeptical and believed that the pulse was simply interference and not something new. When he became convinced that Jocelyn had made a major discovery, he joined her in presenting the finding. The media coverage focused on the supervisor for the science aspect of the study and Jocelyn for the human interest side (e.g. her boyfriends, vital statistics, etc.) She was even asked to unbutton the top buttons on her blouse for photographs.

The sexism involved in crediting Jocelyn for her breakthrough became even more blatant when the Nobel Committee awarded her supervisor the Nobel Prize for Physics, without recognizing her. Those who knew of Jocelyn’s work started calling the recognition given to her supervisor as the No-Bell Prize.

Jocelyn did not take offense at the slight. She went on to have a distinguished career including being the President of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics.

In 2018, she received the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and used the $3 million dollar award to fund women, minorities, and refugee students who wanted to pursue research careers in physics.

Those who make new discoveries often find their work overshadowed by those with more established credentials. In Jocelyn’s case, she did not let the lack of recognition from the Nobel Committee stop her from continuing a remarkable career.

* * *

            “I believe it would demean the Nobel Prize if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.” – Jocelyn Ball (statement made regarding her not receiving the Nobel Prize)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.