Jocelyn Bell Burnell
“The picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren't expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said.”
By identifying the first pulsars, Jocelyn Bell Burnell set the stage for discoveries in black holes and gravitational waves
Bell Burnell’s advisor, Antony Hewish, was, at first, skeptical of the findings, dismissing them as artifacts in her readings. But Bell Burnell was certain it was not just artifical noise. In early 1968, her work paid off with the publication of the first scientific paper documenting pulsars.
The discovery of pulsars was such a big deal that in 1974, Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for it alongside fellow astronomer Martin Ryle. It was the first time the prize had ever been awarded to the field of astronomy—but Bell Burnell’s contributions to the breakthrough find went unmentioned.
As Bell Burnell told Jane J. Lee at National Geographic in 2013, such an oversight was more or less par for the course:
In the past five decades, she has remained both an educator and researcher, serving as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and the first woman president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Currently, Bell Burnell is a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford and pro-chancellor of the Trinity College Dublin. She was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.
Five decades after her dramatic discovery of the pulsar, Bell Burnell will be recognised at the 2019 Breakthrough Prize ceremony. The Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics can be awarded at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement. Dame Bell Burnell will donate the $3 million prize money to fund women, and under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers, thus countering the unconscious bias she believes still exists in physics research jobs.