Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Launch of IYA 2009, Paris - Grygar, Bell Burnell cropped.jpg
Bell Burnell in 2009
Born Susan Jocelyn Bell
(1943-07-15) 15 July 1943 (age 75)[1]
Lurgan, Northern Ireland[2]
Alma mater
Known for Discovering the first four pulsars
Spouse(s) Martin Burnell (1968–1993; divorced)
Children Gavin Burnell
Scientific career
Fields Astrophysics
Thesis The Measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method. (1968)
Doctoral advisor Antony Hewish[3][4][5]
  • Fred Hoyle Frontiers of Astronomy (1955)
  • Mr Tillott (her school physics teacher)
Website Official Website

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS FRSE FRAS (/bɜːrˈnɛl/; born 15 July 1943) is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who was credited with "one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th Century".[7] As a postgraduate student, she discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967.[8] The discovery was recognised by the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish[4][5] and to the astronomer Martin Ryle. Bell was excluded, despite having been the first to observe and precisely analyse the pulsars.[9]

The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Hewish's name was listed first, Bell's second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Martin Ryle, without the inclusion of Bell as a co-recipient. Many prominent astronomers criticised this omission,[10] including Sir Fred Hoyle.[11][12] In 1977, Bell Burnell herself 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."[13] The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in their press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics,[14] 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.

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


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,[15] and during visits she was encouraged by the staff to pursue astronomy professionally[16] . 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.[18]

She failed the eleven-plus exam and her parents sent her to the Mount School, York,[1] a Quaker girls' boarding school. 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.[19]

Bell Burnell was the subject of the first part of the BBC Four 3-part series Beautiful Minds, directed by Jacqui Farnham.[20]

Academic career[edit]

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 (now Murray Edwards College), and worked with Hewish and others to construct[b] a radio telescope for using interplanetary scintillation 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.[21] 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.[22]

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.[23] In 1986, she became the project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.[24] She was Professor of Physics in the Open University from 1991 to 2001. She was also a visiting professor in Princeton University in the United States and Dean of Science in the University of Bath (2001–04),[25] and President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004.

Bell Burnell is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics in the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Mansfield College.[26] She was President of the Institute of Physics between 2008 and 2010.[27] In February 2018 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee.[28]

Non-academic life[edit]

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.[29][30]

Quaker activities and beliefs[edit]

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,[31] 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 revealed her personal religious history and beliefs in an interview with Joan Bakewell in 2006.[32]

Bell Burnell served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee, which produced Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit in February 2007.[33] 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.[34]


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.[35]

Nobel Prize[edit]

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 four-acre radio telescope over two years[6] and initially noticed the anomaly, sometimes reviewing as much as 96 feet 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.[36] In 1977, she commented on the issue:

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![13]





  1. ^ The Preparatory Department of Lurgan College closed in 2004,[17] 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]



External links[edit]





Academic offices
Preceded by
Baron Patel
Chancellor of the University of Dundee
Succeeded by