Physics, Space, Spectacular Scientists

Spectacular Scientists: Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Born in Ireland, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was interested in science from a young age despite her first school not initially permitting girls to study science. Fortunately, her parents supported her interest, and she attended boarding school in England, where her physics teacher persuaded her to continue to University. After an undergraduate in physics from Glasgow, she began her PhD at Cambridge!

This is where she made her famous discovery: pulsars!

What I find amazing is how she discovered them: a tiny section of the 3 miles of data contained a repeating pulse of radio waves. It was so regular, exactly every 1.3 seconds, that although it only took up 5 cm of her piles of data, it was enough for her to notice and take  another reading to confirm. Annoyingly, she couldn’t pick up the same signal straight away so when she updated her supervisor, he brushed it off as interference. Despite this, she continued to make observations, and after finding some more similar pulses (as well as more from the original), it was decided they were, in fact, not mere interference or little green men (as the first observation was named!), but a new kind of star! A little digging provided a hypothetical star from the 1930s that fitted with her discovery- the pulsar!

What are Pulsars?

Most stars spin on their axis, much like the Earth. Except, where the Earth rotates every 24 hours, the sun rotates every 24 days. When a large star ‘dies’, there is a supernova. This is when the star collapses in on itself, ejecting most of it into the universe, leaving just the core remaining. Sometimes, this turns into a black hole, but more often it is a neutron star that is left behind. These are incredibly dense spheres made up solely of neutrons! In fact, they are so dense that if one was 15 miles across (approximately the size of Inner City London) it would contain more matter than in our sun! Now, remember when I said stars spin? The law of angular momentum means that because the star has now a smaller radius, it spins faster. The neutron star also has a really strong magnetic field, so charged particles and plasma are pulled towards the poles and flung out in beams of light!

gif of a pulsar spinning around with the jets of light directly pointing at you every few seconds
A Pulsar (rotating neutron star)
image via

Although Dame Jocelyn undoubtedly played a huge role in the discovery of pulsars, the Nobel Prize went to her supervisor, Antony Hewish, and Martin Ryle (for his ‘observations and inventions’ instrumental to Radio Astronomy). Again, this seems to be a recurring theme of Nobel Prizes, as of the 209 Nobel laureates in physics, 3 have been women: Marie Curie, Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Donna Strickland. That said, Burnell has said she’s “done very well” out of missing out on the Nobel Prize, and indeed she has! She has been a Fellow of the Royal Society, the president of the Royal Astronomical Society and of the Institute of Physics (the first woman to be so), and last year was the winner of the Breakthrough Prize (which she donated, in its entirety to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD programs for underrepresented groups in physics, such as women and refugees. I think this is amazing, because increasing diversity in STEM is really important! She is a real role model to many (including myself!), having started the Athena Swan program which recognises Universities for their advancement for gender equality and representation, and she has done many talks on the topic.

Portrait photograph of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Had you heard of Jocelyn Bell Burnell before?

How can Nobel Prizes be made fairer?

What other Spectacular Women in Stem should I feature?

Do you want to know more about Pulsars? Let me know in the comments!


If you can’t trust an atom… trust in science!

☆it’s like magic, but it’s true whether you believe in it or not!☆

See you next time!



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