Jocelyn Bell Burnell


It is not easy being a woman in a professional field. Not now, not ever. It is not because a woman is incapable or unteachable, but simply because she is not a man. For decades a woman’s place has been in the home, and although things have changed greatly, today’s world still carries over some of these inferior feelings towards women. Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an exception to these feelings as all women should be. She is an intelligent and accomplished woman in one of the most "man" dominated fields, SCIENCE.

Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born on July 15, 1943 in Belfast Ireland. Bell whose married name became Burnell is a female British astronomer and astrophysicist who discovered the first pulsars. Pulsars are stars that release regular bursts of radio waves and the discovery ranks as an important milestone in the history of astrophysics.

Jocelyn started her academic career by failing the Northern Ireland equivalent of the 11+. She gained a creditable number of 0 and A levels and went on to earn a Physics degree at Glasgow University, Scotland in 1965. She began her road to discovery while attending Cambridge University, England working on her Ph.D. As a research student under the supervision of her staff advisor Anthony Hewish, Jocelyn began work on a radio astronomy project designed to study the interplanetary scintillation (twinkling) of compact radio waves. Radio astronomy research had been occurring since the 1950s; however, until Cambridge astronomers began development of a particularly suitable type of radio telescope such research had been severely limited. As a research student Jocelyn was involved in the actual construction and operation of the telescope. The radiotelescope consists of thousands of poles about nine feet tall that have wires and cables that run over four and a half acres. When the radiotelescope receives a radio wave it turns it into a signal that is recorded on paper. One of her main responsibilities on the project was to monitor and interpret the recordings of the radio transmissions once the telescope had become operational in July 1967. Her work largely involved the tedious analyzing of charts by hand and while usually uneventful the importance of her analysis was critical to the project. Her persistence and perceptiveness would prove to be fortuitous for her ultimate discovery.

In November 1967 Jocelyn began to take notice of unusual signals which she termed as "scruff" that at first was thought to be some form of radio wave interference, a common occurrence with highly sensitive radio telescopes. Over a period of several days however, these signals became clearly distinguishable and very regular in their occurrence and it was obvious that they were originating from outside the solar system. Jocelyn was able to record these radio pulse surveillance and study them in great detail. During the next eight weeks the group at Cambridge had great difficulty convincing themselves that the strange signals had been emitted by naturally occurring astronomical objects. As news of the discovery began to spread the astronomy community began to speculate as to the source of these anomalies providing theories ranging from reflections from the moon or planets to transmissions from man-made satellite probes or extraterrestrial civilizations. At the time the discovery was the most suggestive of an extraterrestrial intelligent origin that had ever been detected and Jocelyn herself termed this first stellar discovery LGM which stood for Little Green Men. Later other signals were received which distinctly were from a different location which made it highly unlikely that two lots of little green men would both choose the same, improbable frequency, and at the same time try to signal the same planet earth. Bell recognized that the source changed its position in the sky from day to day at the same rate as the stars, proof that it was not a man-made signal. In time these radio signals proved to be emissions from a unique category of neutron star. Jocelyn Burnell Bell had made the most remarkable astronomical discovery in recent history; she had detected the first known pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star that sends out regular burst of radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation.

A neutron star is made up of a very compact core, which is left when massive stars explode. Pulsars are the beams of radiation that emit from a neutron star as it spins and sweep across the sky much like the beam from a lighthouse. In an earlier age the pulsar she discovered would no doubt have been known as Bell’s star but today it is simply know as CP 1919 (CP stands for "Cambridge Pulsar"). Jocelyn went on to discover several more pulsars. The impact of the discovery on the astronomical community at the time was enormous and within a few weeks other similar projects were engaged and eventually other discoveries of pulsars were made.

In 1974 Jocelyn’s advisor at Cambridge, Anthony Hewish, and Sir Martin Ryle also from Cambridge were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics with Hewish honored for the discovery of pulsars. This was the first time the prize was given for work in astronomy. The Nobel Prize announcement triggered a public controversy regarding the recognition Bell failed to receive for her part in the discovery. Many argued that Jocelyn Bell should have received or at least shared in the Nobel Prize.

Jocelyn Bell’s career after completing her thesis and Ph.D. degree at Cambridge led her into x-ray and gamma-ray astronomy. She held a Science Research Council fellowship from 1968 to 1970 and a junior teaching fellowship from 1970 to 1973 at the University of Southampton where she developed and calibrated a 1-10 million electron volt gamma-ray telescope. She was employed as a researcher at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at the University College in London as a graduate programmer and associate research fellow from 1974 to 1982 where she worked primarily on a x-ray research satellite called Ariel 5. After 1982 Jocelyn worked as a senior research fellow at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland. Currently Jocelyn is a full professor of which only two out of the 150 in all of Britain are women, and heads the Physics Department at the Open University of the United Kingdom.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell has received numerous awards for her professional contributions. She was first elected as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1969 and has served as its Vice President. Among many of her awards she received the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize from the American Astronomical Society in 1987 and the Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1989. She is a recipient of the Oppenheimer Prize and The Michelson Medal. She has been frequently interviewed and was the cover story for the May 1995 issue of the magazine Current Biography.

Jocelyn can be described as a gentlewoman with a lyrical Irish-Scottish brogue. She is considered to be extremely modest, admitting that the discovery of pulsars had a lot to do with luck. With respect to the Nobel Prize controversy Jocelyn believes the arguments that she should have received the award have been overstated. She believes that it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, which she believes hers was not one of them. Jocelyn was married in 1968 and had a son and was married several years but has subsequently divorced. Today Jocelyn concerns and efforts are directed towards the advancement of astronomy and she is deeply involved in the teaching and public understanding of physics and astronomy. Even to this day she is teaching adults who were also told they were failures and could not continue in the educational field. Her current position at the Open University which has an enrollment exceeding 150,000 requires great persistence and perceptiveness qualities which lead her to one of the most remarkable astronomical discoveries in recent memory and which will invariably lead her to continued success throughout her career.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell has led a very interesting and impressive life. She has gone beyond in education where tests said she could not go and has believed in herself and her work from the beginning. She was presented at a young age with failure, but surprised the world with her intelligence. Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a great example for people to look up to and see that your dreams can come true if you only believe in yourself.

She has used telescopes flown on high-altitude balloons, launched on rockets and carried satellites. She has built a radio telescope, which is firmly grounded in Cambridgeshire. From time to time she can be found in Hawaii- panting for breath at 14000' and using the UKs infrared or millimeter telescopes. In her spare time she walks, gardens, sews, swims, and knits, listens to choral music and is active in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).




Burnell, Jocelyn Bell Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars? Cosmic Search Magazine. Volume 1, No.1. ©December 1979.

Ferguson, Kitty. Prisons Of Light. Cambridge University Press, ©1996.

Sarrri, Peggy and Allison, Stephen, "The Lives and Works of 150 Scientists". Volume 1. Library of Congress Cataloging-in Publications Data. ©1996

Smith, Francis G. Pulsars. Cambridge University Press ©1977.

Stille, Darlene R. Extraordinary Women Scientists Children Press, Chicago. ©1995.

Thomson, E.A. Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell-Astronomer Internet Web Site:

Weatherall, Marsh The Woman Who Discovered Pulsars-An Interview With Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Internet Web Site:



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