Jocelyn Bell Burnell


Born: July 15, 1943 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK
Nationality: Northern Irish
Famous For: Discovery of first 4 pulsars
Awards: The Herschel Medal (1989), Fellow of the Royal Society (March 2003), Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2007)

Some say that Jocelyn Bell Burnell made the greatest discovery concerning astronomy in the 20th Century, which was radio pulsars. However, some feel she was pushed aside and did not receive the recognition she deserved for her discovery.

Early Life and Education

Susan Jocelyn Bell was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1943 to a father who was an architect and who also designed a high-profile planetarium. Her parents encouraged her to study astronomy and science from an early age. Even so, she struggled in primary school and failed the exam for her 11+, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma in the United States.

At the same time, Bell’s teachers recognized her as a young woman with a special talents and intelligence. She was encouraged to focus her mind on astronomy and physics, a subject for which she displayed brilliance. She eventually earned her doctorate in astrophysics from New Hall, which is now Murray Edwards College, a branch of the prestigious University of Cambridge.

Bell’s Major Discovery

After earning her academic credentials, Bell became the driving force which built the radio telescope that would eventually discover radio pulsars, which are rapidly spinning neutron stars.

But at the time, Bell was still working under her thesis supervisor, British astronomer Antony Hewish. It was he, along with Martin Ryle, who received most of the recognition for the discovery of radio pulsars – a move which outraged many in the world of advanced astronomy.

Although she was kept out of certain meetings regarding this major discovery, Bell insisted that certain data was highly significant, and this specific data led to the discovery of radio pulsars. Her superiors, however, attempted to dismiss the data as signals from “little green men.” Then when it was established that Bell had been correct all along – it was Hewish and Ryle who received the credit and the Nobel Prize for the discovery.

Bell’s Reaction

With great humility, Bell herself said that too much has been made of her treatment at the hands of her mentors and the Nobel committee. She said that her discovery was partially “luck,” and she also points out that is has always been standard form to exclude research students (which she was at the time under Hewish) for major awards or recognition.

Awards and Recognitions

Despite missing out on science’s top prize, Jocelyn Bell Burnell has received some of the highest honors and awards in science and from her country. She was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (the equivalent of being knighted) in 1999. She also received the Herschel Medal, the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize, and was named a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Bell’s Personal Life

Susan Jocelyn Bell is also a devout Quaker, a belief system that she says is more akin to science than religion because it encourages followers to reject dogma and find their own way to God based on direct experience.

Today, Jocelyn Bell goes by the name of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, taking the name of a husband she married in 1968 but later divorced. She has one son from the marriage. At age 69, Bell Burnell is still active in her research and is among the most respected scientists in the world.