Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Launch of IYA 2009, Paris - Grygar, Bell Burnell cropped.jpg
Bell Burnell in 2009
Susan Jocelyn Bell

(1943-07-15) 15 July 1943 (age 75)[1]
Lurgan, Northern Ireland[2]
Alma mater
Known for Co-discovering the first four pulsars[3]
Martin Burnell
(m. 1968; div. 1993)
Children Gavin Burnell
Scientific career
Fields Astrophysics
Thesis The Measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method (1968)
Doctoral advisor Antony Hewish[4][5][6]
  • Fred Hoyle Frontiers of Astronomy (1955)
  • Henry Tillott[7] (her school physics teacher)

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS FRSE FRAS FInstP (/bɜːrˈnɛl/; born 15 July 1943) is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who, as a postgraduate student, co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967.[9] She was credited with "one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century".[10] The discovery was recognised by the award of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, but despite the fact that she was the first to observe the pulsars,[11] Bell was not one of the recipients of the prize.

The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Bell's thesis supervisor Antony Hewish[5][6] was listed first, Bell second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with the astronomer Martin Ryle. Many prominent astronomers criticised Bell's omission,[12] including Sir Fred Hoyle.[13][14] In 1977, Bell Burnell played down this controversy, saying, "I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them."[15] The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in its press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics,[16] cited Ryle and Hewish for their pioneering work in radio-astrophysics, with particular mention of Ryle's work on aperture-synthesis technique, and Hewish's decisive role in the discovery of pulsars.

Bell served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, as president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010, and as interim president of the Institute following the death of her successor, Marshall Stoneham, in early 2011.

In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She donated the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students become physics researchers.[17][18]

Education and early life

Jocelyn Bell, June 1967

Jocelyn Bell was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, to M. Allison and G. Philip Bell.[2][1] Her father was an architect who had helped design the Armagh Planetarium,[19] and during visits she was encouraged by the staff to pursue astronomy professionally.[20] Young Jocelyn also discovered her father's books on astronomy.

She grew up in Lurgan and attended the Preparatory Department[a] of Lurgan College from 1948 to 1956,[2] where she, like the other girls, was not permitted to study science until her parents (and others) protested against the school's policy. Previously, the girls' curriculum had included such subjects as cooking and cross-stitching rather than science.[22]

She failed the eleven-plus exam and her parents sent her to The Mount School,[1] a Quaker girls' boarding school in York, England. There she was favourably impressed by her physics teacher, Mr Tillott, and stated:

You do not have to learn lots and lots ... of facts; you just learn a few key things, and ... then you can apply and build and develop from those ... He was a really good teacher and showed me, actually, how easy physics was.[23]

Bell Burnell was the subject of the first part of the BBC Four three-part series Beautiful Minds, directed by Jacqui Farnham.[24]

Career and research

Chart on which Burnell first recognised evidence of a pulsar, exhibited at Cambridge university Library
Composite Optical/X-ray image of the Crab Nebula, showing synchrotron emission in the surrounding pulsar wind nebula, powered by injection of magnetic fields and particles from the central pulsar

She graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Philosophy (physics), with honours, in 1965 and obtained a PhD degree from the University of Cambridge in 1969. At Cambridge, she attended New Hall, Cambridge, and worked with Hewish and others to construct[b] the Interplanetary Scintillation Array to study quasars, which had recently been discovered.[c]

In July 1967, she detected a bit of "scruff" on her chart-recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars.[25] She established that the signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse every one and a third seconds. Temporarily dubbed "Little Green Man 1" (LGM-1) the source (now known as PSR B1919+21) was identified after several years as a rapidly rotating neutron star. This was later documented by the BBC Horizon series.[26]

She worked at the University of Southampton between 1968 and 1973, University College London from 1974 to 82 and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (1982–91). From 1973 to 1987 she was a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University.[27] In 1986, she became the project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.[28] She was Professor of Physics at the Open University from 1991 to 2001. She was also a visiting professor at Princeton University in the United States and Dean of Science at the University of Bath (2001–04),[29] and President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004.

Bell Burnell is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Mansfield College.[30] She was President of the Institute of Physics between 2008 and 2010.[31] In February 2018 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee.[32] In 2018, Bell Burnell visited Parkes, NSW, to deliver the keynote John Bolton lecture at the CWAS AstroFest event.[33][34]

In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth three million dollars (£2.3 million), for her discovery of radio pulsars.[35] The Special Prize, in contrast to the regular annual prize, is not restricted to recent discoveries.[36] She donated all of the money "to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers",[37] the funds to be administered by the Institute of Physics.[18]

Nobel Prize controversy

That Bell did not receive recognition in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics has been a point of controversy ever since. She helped build the Interplanetary Scintillation Array over two years[8] and initially noticed the anomaly, sometimes reviewing as much as 96 feet (29 m) of paper data per night. Bell later claimed that she had to be persistent in reporting the anomaly in the face of scepticism from Hewish, who was initially insistent that it was due to interference and man-made. She spoke of meetings held by Hewish and Ryle to which she was not invited.[38] In 1977, she commented on the issue:

First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not![15]




Her publications[58] include:

  • Burnell, S. Jocelyn (1989). Broken for Life. Swarthmore Lecture. London: Quaker Home Service. ISBN 978-0-85245-222-6.
  • Riordan, Maurice; Burnell, S. Jocelyn (27 October 2008). Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. ISBN 978-1-903080-10-8.

Personal and non-academic life

Bell Burnell is house patron of Burnell House at Cambridge House Grammar School in Ballymena. She has campaigned to improve the status and number of women in professional and academic posts in the fields of physics and astronomy.[59][60]

Quaker activities and beliefs

From her school days, she has been an active Quaker and served as Clerk to the sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting in 1995, 1996 and 1997. She delivered a Swarthmore Lecture under the title Broken for Life,[61] at Yearly Meeting in Aberdeen on 1 August 1989, and was the plenary speaker at the US Friends General Conference Gathering in 2000.[citation needed] She spoke of her personal religious history and beliefs in an interview with Joan Bakewell in 2006.[62]

Bell Burnell served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee, which produced Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit in February 2007.[63] In 2013 she gave a James Backhouse Lecture which was published in a book entitled A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious?, in which Burnell reflects about how cosmological knowledge can be related to what the Bible, Quakerism or Christian faith states.[64]


In 1968, soon after her discovery, Bell married Martin Burnell; the couple divorced in 1993 after separating in 1989. Her husband was a local government officer, and his career took them to various parts of Britain. She worked part-time for many years while raising her son, Gavin Burnell, who is a member of the condensed matter physics group at the University of Leeds.[65]

See also


  1. ^ The Preparatory Department of Lurgan College closed in 2004,[21] the college becoming a selective grammar school for ages 14–19.
  2. ^ "... upon entering the faculty, each student was issued a set of tools: a pair of pliers, a pair of long-nose pliers, a wire cutter, and a screwdriver...", said during a public lecture in Montreal during the 40 Years of Pulsars conference, 14 August 2007
  3. ^ Interplanetary scintillation allows compact sources to be distinguished from extended ones.[citation needed]


Works cited

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  • Bakewell, Joan (9 November 2010). "Interview with Jocelyn Bell Burnell". Belief. BBC. Archived from the original on 9 November 2010.
  • "Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize". American Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on 30 April 2018. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
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  • "Beautiful Minds, Series 1, Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Part 1 of 3)". BBC Four. 24 April 2011. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  • "Bell Burnell, Dame (Susan) Jocelyn, (born 15 July 1943), astronomer; Visiting Professor of Astrophysics, University of Oxford, since 2004; President, Royal Society of Edinburgh, 2014–March 2018". Who's Who (UK). Oxford University Press. 1 December 2017. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.7157.
  • Bell Burnell, Jocelyn (26 October 1995). "The woman who discovered pulsars: An Interview with Jocelyn Bell Burnell at NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory)" (Interview). Interviewed by Kate Marsh Weatherall; David G. Finley. Weatherall Technical Applications. Retrieved 2 February 2018.
  • Bell Burnell, Jocelyn (21 May 2000). "Oral History Interviews: Jocelyn Bell Burnell" (Interview). Interviewed by David DeVorkin. College Park, MD: AIP.
  • Bell Burnell, Jocelyn (2007). "Pulsars 40 Years on". Science. 318 (5850): 579–581. doi:10.1126/science.1150039. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 17962545.
  • Bell Burnell, Jocelyn (2013). A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious?. James Backhouse Lecture. Australia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). p. 11. ISBN 978-0-646-59239-8.
  • Bell Burnell, S.J. (2004). "So Few Pulsars, So Few Females". Science. 304 (5670): 426–89. doi:10.1126/science.304.5670.489. PMID 15105461.
  • Bell Burnell, S. Jocelyn (1977). "Petit Four – After Dinner Speech published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science Dec 1977". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 302: 685–689. Bibcode:1977NYASA.302..685B. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1977.tb37085.x.
  • Bell, Susan Jocelyn (1968). The Measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method. (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. doi:10.17863/CAM.4926. OCLC 500382385. EThOS
  • Bertsch McGrayne, Sharon (1998). Nobel Prize women in science: their lives, struggles, and momentous discoveries (Rev. ed.). Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group. ISBN 978-0-8065-2025-4. OCLC 39633911.
  • "Cosmic Search Vol. 1, No. 1 – Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?".
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  • "Dr Gavin Burnell: Associate Professor in Condensed Matter Physics". Condensed Matter Physics Group, University of Leeds. 2010. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  • Eisberg, Joann (1997). "Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943–)". In Shearer, Benjamin F.; Shearer, Barbara (eds.). Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press. pp. 9–14. ISBN 978-0-313-29303-0.
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  • "Hawking receives Einstein Award". Physics Today. 31 (4): 68. April 1978. Bibcode:1978PhT....31d..68.. doi:10.1063/1.2995004. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, researcher on the staff of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of University College London, is the recipient of the 1978 J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize.
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  • Merali, Zeeya (6 September 2018). "Pulsar discoverer Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins $3-million Breakthrough Prize". Nature. 561 (7722): 161. Bibcode:2018Natur.561..161M. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-06210-w. ISSN 0028-0836. PMID 30206391.
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  • Pilkington, J. D. H.; Hewish, A.; Bell, S. J.; Cole, T. W. (1968). "Observations of some further Pulsed Radio Sources". Nature. 218 (5137): 126. Bibcode:1968Natur.218..126P. doi:10.1038/218126a0. For the first paper (announcing the discovery), see Hewish et al. 1968.
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Further reading

  • Coroniti, Ferdinand V.; Williams, Gary A. (2006). "Jocelyn Bell Burnell". In Byers, Nina; Williams, Gary (eds.). Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82197-1.

External links


  • Freeview video "Tick, Tick, Pulsating Star: How I Wonder What You Are?" A Royal Institution Discourse by the Vega Science Trust (accessed 24 December 2007).


  • Counterbalance Library: Bell Burnell talk "Science and the Spiritual Quest" (24 Minutes) (Accessed 7 April 2010).
  • University of Manchester – Jodcast Interview with Jocelyn Bell-Burnell


  • Biographical article, indicating Bell Burnell's beliefs and personal life, from California State Polytechnic University NOVA project. (Accessed 24 December 2007).
  • Irishwoman who discovered the "lighthouses of the universe" Irish Times profile.
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