Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins big physics prize for 1967 pulsar discovery

The astrophysicist discusses her $3 million award — and why she's giving it away

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

ROLE MODEL  Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, shown here giving a keynote address at Inspirefest 2015, has worked on many diversity initiatives in science, and will use her Breakthrough Prize winnings to create scholarships.

Silicon Republic/wikimedia commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell first noticed the strange, repeating blip in 1967. A University of Cambridge graduate student at the time, she had been reviewing data from a radio telescope she had helped build near campus. Persistent tracking revealed the signal’s source to be something entirely unknown up to that point — a pulsar, or a rapidly spinning stellar corpse that sweeps beams of radio waves across the sky like a lighthouse.

A half-century later on September 6, Bell Burnell was awarded the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. The prize has been given only three times before: to British physicist Stephen Hawking for discovering a type of radiation from black holes in 1974, the CERN team that discovered the Higgs boson in 2012, and the LIGO collaboration that in 2016 found gravitational waves.

But before any of those discoveries, Bell Burnell’s pulsar find was revolutionizing astrophysics. It led to precise tests of Einstein’s theory of gravity, the first observations of exoplanets and the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics — from which Bell Burnell was famously excluded. Now 75 years old, Bell Burnell is giving back, donating her prize to create scholarships for underrepresented minorities in physics and astronomy.

Science News caught up with Bell Burnell to chat about aliens, impostor syndrome and how being an outsider can be a boon in scientific research. The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.

A SMALL ANOMALY The signals from pulsars took up about 5 millimeters of space on the long rolls of radio telescope data, a portion of which is seen in this image. Courtesy of Breakthrough Foundation
: What did the first pulsar data look like to you?

J.B.B.: It was an anomaly, and it was a very small anomaly. Typically it took up about 5 millimeters of my long rolls of chart paper, out of half a kilometer. I was being very, very thorough, very careful. I kept poking at it to try and understand what it was.

SN: You called the first signal LGM-1, for Little Green Man 1. Did you really think it might be a signal from aliens?

J.B.B.: That was a bit of a joke, which I now rather regret. But we did check it out. My advisor Tony [Hewish] argued that, if it were little green men as we nicknamed them, they’d probably be on a planet going round their sun. As their planet moved, we would see what’s called Doppler shift. The spacing between pulses would change as their planet moved. We looked for that, but we couldn’t find any such motion.

SN: At what point did you realize that pulsars were going to be a big deal?

J.B.B.: Quite late in the process. I’d found all four that I was going to find. The first paper announcing the results was to be published a day or two later [on February 24, 1968, in Nature]. My thesis advisor, Tony Hewish, gave a talk in Cambridge, and gave it a very titillating title. Everybody came, and the excitement was palpable.

SN: What have pulsars taught us since then?

J.B.B.: We’ve learned a lot about extreme physics, because pulsars are really, really extreme. They are the remains of stars after the star has expired in a violent explosion. They’re about 10 miles across, but they weigh as much as the sun, a thousand million million million million tons. That’s four millions. Very small, very heavy, very peculiar composition.

We’re using pulsars to test some of Einstein’s theories. His ideas are standing up very well, which is interesting (SN: 2/3/18, p. 7). And we’re developing ideas, looking very far ahead, for using these things as navigation beacons, when we start traveling through the galaxy in spaceships (SN: 2/3/18, p. 7).

COSMIC LIGHTHOUSE Pulsars, the superdense remains of dead stars, sweep lighthouselike beams of radio waves across the sky. When a beam crosses Earth, the pulsar appears as a blinking star.

SN: What do you wish you’d been told about being a woman in astronomy when you were younger?

J.B.B.: I think it wasn’t what people would tell me, it would be having more women around. Because there were so few women in Cambridge, I rarely got the chance to mix with other women. I would have liked a bit of that.

SN: Do you credit your discovery at all to being in the minority?

J.B.B.: Yes, I do. I was, I reckon, suffering from impostor syndrome in Cambridge, although we didn’t have that name at that time. Cambridge is in the southeast of England, and it’s a very confident, suave type of society. As you may guess from my accent, I don’t come from the southeast of England. I’m from the north and western parts of Britain.

I was both geographically out of place, and as a woman out of place. I thought, wow, they’re all terribly clever. I’m not so bright. They’ve made a mistake. They’re going to find out their mistake, and they’re going to throw me out.

But I said to myself, I’m not going to waste this opportunity. Until they throw me out, I will work my very hardest, so that when they throw me out, I won’t have a guilty conscience…. I think a lot of other people would have overlooked that little anomaly that I chased up.

SN: How did you feel about not being included on the 1974 Nobel Prize?

J.B.B.: At that stage, the image people had of science was of a senior man, and it always was a man, with a fleet of younger people working for him. And if the project went well, the man got praise. If the project went badly, the man got the blame. The younger people working under him were isolated from all of that. It seemed to me to be part of that pattern of doing things.

I think the Nobel Prize is still fairly male orientated. The world is now making strenuous efforts to be more inclusive. Prizes like the Nobel tend to go to the most senior people, so that will reflect how the society was when they were young and active. It’s going to be some time until changes percolate to the senior prizes.

SN: How do you feel now, winning the Breakthrough Prize?

J.B.B.: Oh, it’s fantastic, amazing! I was speechless when I was told about it. And as you may guess, I’m not often speechless.

SN: Why did you decide to donate the money to diversity initiatives?

J.B.B.: I’ve been conscious that diverse bodies are often more successful, more flexible, more robust. I’d like to see more diversity in science, and I’d like more people who often don’t get the chance to do research given the chance to do research. That’s my thinking.

SN: What other diversity initiatives have you been involved in?

J.B.B.: This is not the first. I’ve been one of a small group of senior women that set up a project in the United Kingdom called Athena SWAN, that encourages universities to be women-friendly places…. And if they’re women-friendly, they’re probably fair for everybody, not just women.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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