Monday, May 10, 2010

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

On November 28 1967, a young postgraduate student named Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish made one of the great discoveries of 20th century astronomy. This great discovery won Hewish and his research partner Martin Ryle the 1974 Nobel prize. The awarding of the Nobel prize to just Hewish and Ryle has being seen by many as controversial but unfortunately Jocelyn was no stranger to adversity in her career.

Born July 15th 1943 in Belfast, Jocelyn Bell Burnell didn't have a typical girls up bringing. Her father was an architect for the Armagh Observatory. From a young age this exposure to this observatory and its library fuelled an interest in astronomy. She was granted the opportunity to pursue a science stream in school. This was unusual for the period as most girls her age were generally put in classes where stitching and home economics were the norm. Not all was went well for young Jocelyn, she failed her eleven plus exams. With this set back she was sent to a local boarding school, it was here that she found a love of physics. When she finished school she went to Glasgow University to earn a degree in physics which she completed in 1965.

With her degree completed she went to Murray Edwards College in the University of Cambridge. It was here while doing research work into quasars using a radio telescope that she made that faithful discovery. While analysing data which she had gathered, a regular repeating signal was observed. This discovery was totally unexpected and it took several more years for it to be correctly identified. She had discovered the first example of a pulsar. A pulsar is a rapidly rotating neutron star.

This discovery would give Hewish and his research partner Ryle the first ever Nobel prize for physics for an astronomer. She was overlooked for this award and even to this day it is still not clear why. There are several possible reasons, firstly she was a woman working in  male dominated field and secondly she was at that time a Ph. D student. Whatever the reason she was wrongfully denied the Nobel prize.

She completed her Ph. D in 1969, and moved to Southampton to take up a post in the University of Southampton. She also held various other posts at University College London and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. In addition to these posts she worked as tutor, lecturer and examiner for Open University. It was here that she was appointed the head of physics in 1991. She retired from active academic work in 2004. She currently holds the position of president of the Institute of Physics and is the Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

Her remarkable story is all the more amazing when you see it from the viewpoint of a woman in science in the early 1960's. In several interviews she gave recently about her time in university studying for her degree she remarked how difficult it was. She recalled that being the only woman in a class of fifty was a very daunting experience. On a daily basis she faced ridicule  and disdain. She was a pioneer from many women in science and this may be her greatest contribution to the field.


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