Jocelyn Bell-Burnell

Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
Credit: Wikimedia (User: Anrie)

Occupation: Astrophysicist

Year born: 1943

Research Areas: Radio-Astronomy, Pulsars

 

"Science doesn't always go forwards. It's a bit like doing a Rubik's cube. You sometimes have to make more of a mess with a Rubik's cube before you can get it to go right."

Source: Beautiful Minds (2010), television program BBC, UK, 7 April.

 

Early Life

Jocelyn was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her father was an architect who had helped design the Armagh planetarium. Jocelyn became interested in astronomy during visits there. She did not do very well in exams when she was young, but she had a very inspiring physics teacher. Jocelyn went on to Glasgow University to study physics and then to Cambridge University where she was awarded her PhD in Radio Astronomy in 1969.

Career Highlights

At Cambridge, Jocelyn helped to build an enormous radio telescope to receive radio waves from space. The telescope covered 4 square kilometres. Jocelyn was the first person to run the telescope when it was finished. Her job included operating the telescope and analysing over 30 meters (that’s about three double decker bus lengths!) of information that it printed out every day!

Jocelyn and her supervisor were looking for radio waves from quasars. While she was analysing the printouts from the telescope, Jocelyn noticed a few “bits of scruff” that she did not recognise. She examined the data and discovered regular repeating, or pulsing, signals. The signals were too fast to be quasars and she thought it could be an alien signal! Jocelyn and her PhD supervisor finally worked out the signals must be coming from very dense and rapidly spinning collapsed stars and called them pulsars – a combination of the words “pulsating stars”. We now know the first signal Jocelyn found came from the neutron star PSR B1919+21.

The discovery of pulsars has been called one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century. In 1974, Jocelyn’s supervisor, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for their work on radio-astronomy and pulsars. Jocelyn was not included in the prize, but she has said that the prize was given appropriately considering she was a student at the time of the discovery.

Legacy

Jocelyn was appointed to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to astronomy in 1999, followed by a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.

Other Interests

Jocelyn is an active Quaker.