Jocelyn Bell-Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 2010
Credit: Wikimedia (User: Anrie)

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, DBE, FRS, PRSE, FRAS (born 1943)

Jocelyn was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland but went to boarding school in England to give her a second chance after she failed an exam that would have allowed her to go on to higher education. This school had a very inspiring physics teacher and with the encouragement of her parents who, as Quakers, thought women’s’ education was very important, she succeeded this time and went on to Glasgow University to study physics and then to Cambridge University where she was awarded her PhD in radio astronomy in 1969.

At Cambridge Jocelyn helped to build an enormous radio telescope to study quasars. While she was analysing the printouts from the telescope, she noticed a few “bits of scruff”. They were very regular signals that occurred every second, this was too fast to come from the quasars she was looking for and initially she called them LGM-1 and LGM-2, where LGM stood for “Little Green Men”. With her supervisor, she eventually 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.

In 1974, Jocelyn’s supervisor, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for their pioneering work in radio-astrophysics and quoting the discovery of pulsars but Jocelyn was not included in the prize. Many prominent scientists complained that Jocelyn had been left out of the prize but she has said that the prize was given appropriately considering she was a student at the time of the discovery.

However, Jocelyn has been honoured by many other organisations. She was awarded the Albert A. Michelson Medal in 1973 (jointly with Anthony Hewish), the Herschel Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1989), the Grote Reber Medal at the General Assembly of the International Radio Science Union (2011), the Royal Medal of the Royal Society (2015) and she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2003. Jocelyn was President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, President of the Institute of Physics from 2008 until 2010 and in 2014 she was elected as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1999, she was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Astronomy and promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.