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 72)[1]
Lurgan, Northern Ireland
Nationality British
Fields Astrophysics
Alma mater
Thesis The Measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method. (1968)
Doctoral advisor Antony Hewish[2][3][4]
Known for Discovering the first four pulsars
Influences Fred Hoyle Frontiers of Astronomy (1955)
Mr Tillott (her school physics teacher)
Notable awards Herschel Medal (1989)
FRS (2003)
DBE (2007)
Official Website
from the BBC programme The Life Scientific, 25 October 2010.[5]

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS FRSE FRAS (born 15 July 1943) is a Northern Irish astrophysicist. As a postgraduate student, she discovered the first radio pulsars while studying and advised by her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish,[3][4] for which Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Martin Ryle, while Bell Burnell was excluded, despite having been the first to observe and precisely analyse the pulsars.[6] Bell Burnell 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. She was succeeded in October 2011 by Sir Peter Knight.[7] Bell Burnell was elected as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in October 2014. In March 2013 she was elected Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.

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 expressed outrage at this omission,[8] including Sir Fred Hoyle.[9] The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in their press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics,[10] 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. Dr. Iosif Shklovsky, recipient of the 1972 Bruce Medal, had sought out Bell at the 1970 International Astronomical Union's General Assembly, to tell her: "Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century."[11]

Background and family life[edit]

Susan Jocelyn Bell, June 1967

Susan Jocelyn Bell was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. Her father was an architect who had helped design the Armagh Planetarium,[12] and young Jocelyn soon discovered his books on astronomy. She grew up in Lurgan and attended Lurgan College, 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.

She failed the 11+ exam and her parents sent her to the Mount School, York,[1] a Quaker girls' boarding school.[13] There she was favourably impressed by her physics teacher, Mr. Tillott, who stated:

You don't 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.[14]

Bell Burnell was the subject of the first part of the BBC Four 3-part series Beautiful Minds, directed by Jacqui Farnham, in which her career and contributions to astronomy were explored.[15]

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.

Bell Burnell graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Philosophy (physics) in 1965 and obtained a Ph.D. 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[16] a radio telescope for using interplanetary scintillation to study quasars, which had recently been discovered (interplanetary scintillation allows compact sources to be distinguished from extended ones). In July 1967, she detected a bit of "scruff" on her chart-recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars.[17] Ms. Bell found that the signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse per second. 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 (extract

Bell Burnell worked at the University of Southampton (1968–73), University College London (1974–82) and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (1982–91). In addition, from 1973 to 1987, she was a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University.[18] 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),[19] and President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004. She is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics in the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College.[20] She was President of the Institute of Physics between 2008 and 2010.[21]

Non-academic life[edit]

Bell 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.[22][23][24]

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,[25] at Yearly Meeting in Aberdeen on 1 August 1989, and was the plenary speaker at the U.S. Friends General Conference Gathering in 2000.

She revealed her personal religious history and beliefs in an interview with Joan Bakewell in 2006.[26] She served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee, which produced Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit in February 2007.[27] 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.[28]

Nobel Prize[edit]

The fact that Bell did not receive recognition in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics has been a point of controversy ever since. She helped build[29] the four-acre radio telescope over two years 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.[30] Fred Hoyle harshly criticized the Nobel committee, going so far as to accuse Hewish of stealing Bell's data. Ironically, as some would later conjecture, it was this public outburst that would later cause Hoyle to be excluded from the 1983 Prize.[31]

However, Bell has also been hesitant to express indignation at the omission. In an after-dinner speech made in 1977, she had the following to say on the matter:

There are several comments that I would like to make on this: 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! [32]


Although she did not share the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics with Hewish for her discovery, she has been honoured by many other organisations:

She has also been awarded numerous honorary degrees, including:

Doctor of the University: Dublin City University (2015)


In 1999, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Astronomy and promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.[50]

In February 2013, she was assessed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4.[51]

In February 2014, she was made President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the first woman to hold that office.[52]

Selected works[edit]



  1. ^ a b "BELL BURNELL, Dame (Susan) Jocelyn" (Who's Who 2013, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2013; online edn, Oxford University Press). (subscription required)
  2. ^ Bell, Susan Jocelyn (1968). The Measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ a b Hewish, A.; Bell, S. J.; Pilkington, J. D. H.; Scott, P. F.; Collins, R. A. (1968). "Observation of a Rapidly Pulsating Radio Source". Nature 217 (5130): 709. Bibcode:1968Natur.217..709H. doi:10.1038/217709a0. 
  4. ^ a b 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. 
  5. ^ "Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell". The Life Scientific. 25 October 2010. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  6. ^ Hargittai, István (2003). The road to Stockholm : Nobel Prizes, science, and scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 240. ISBN 0198607857. 
  7. ^ List of publications from Microsoft Academic Search
  8. ^ Erica Westly (6 October 2008). "No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs". Scientific American. 
  9. ^ Judson, Horace (20 October 2003). "No Nobel Prize for Whining". New York Times. Retrieved 3 August 2007. 
  10. ^ "Press Release: The 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics". 1974-10-15. Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  11. ^ Longair, Malcolm (2006). The Cosmic Century: A History of Astrophysics and Cosmology. Cambridge University Press. p. 196. ISBN 0-521-47436-1. 
  12. ^ Johnston, Colin (March 2007). "Pulsar Pioneer visits us" (PDF). Astronotes (Armagh Planetarium). pp. 2–3. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  13. ^ At Mount School 1956–61. She is the 2007 President of the Old Scholars' Association.
  14. ^ Jocelyn Bell Burnell interview
  15. ^ "BBC Four - Beautiful Minds, Series 1, Jocelyn Bell Burnell". 2011-04-24. Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  16. ^ "...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
  17. ^ "The Restless Universe: Some Highlights of Physics". OpenLearn. The Open University. Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
  18. ^ "Jocelyn Bell Burnell". Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics (CWP). Retrieved 2007-07-07. 
  19. ^ [1] Archived May 29, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Queen's Birthday Honours 2007". University of Oxford. 18 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-10. 
  21. ^ "Council". Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  22. ^ Bell Burnell, S. J. (2004). "So Few Pulsars, So Few Females". Science 304 (5670): 489–426. doi:10.1126/science.304.5670.489. PMID 15105461. 
  23. ^ [2][dead link]
  24. ^ "Face to Face: science star who went under the radar of Nobel Prize judges (From Herald Scotland)". Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  25. ^ Details of the print version of the lecture are given in the Bibliography
  26. ^ [3] Archived November 9, 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit, 2007 ISBN 0-901689-59-9
  28. ^ Burnell, Jocelyn Bell. 2013. [ A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious?]. Interactive Publications, p. 11
  29. ^ BBC Radio 4 interview 25 October 2011
  30. ^ "BBC Four - Beautiful Minds, Series 1". 2011-04-25. Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  31. ^ Robin McKie. "Fred Hoyle: the scientist whose rudeness cost him a Nobel prize | Science". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  32. ^ [4][dead link]
  33. ^ "Franklin Laureate Database - Albert A. Michelson Medal Laureates". Franklin Institute. Retrieved 15 June 2011. 
  34. ^ "The Franklin Institute Awards | The Franklin Institute Science Museum". Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  35. ^ Walter, Claire (1982). Winners, the blue ribbon encyclopedia of awards. Facts on File Inc. p. 438. ISBN 9780871963864. 
  36. ^ "J. Bell-Burnell, received the 1978 J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize". Physics Today (American Institute of Physics): 68. April 1978. Bibcode:1978PhT....31d..68.. doi:10.1063/1.2995004. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  37. ^ "Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize | American Astronomical Society". Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  38. ^ "Jansky Home Page". Retrieved 2009-05-14. 
  39. ^ [5] Archived April 17, 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  40. ^ [6] Archived October 14, 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  41. ^ Gold, Lauren (July 6, 2006). "Discoverer of pulsars (aka Little Green Men) reflects on the process of discovery and being a female pioneer". Cornell Chronicle. 
  42. ^ "QVMAG: Grote Reber Medal Winners". Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  43. ^ "Royal Medal". Royal Society. Retrieved 20 July 2015. 
  44. ^ "Women of the Year Prudential Lifetime Achievement Award". Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  45. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u "Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, DBE". Debrett's People of Today. Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  46. ^ "Honorary Graduates and Chancellor's Medallists". University of Warwick. Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  47. ^ "Williams College to honor eight renowned scientists and dedicate new science center, Sept. 23". Williams College Office of Public Affairs. 2000-08-02. Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  48. ^ "Honorary degree recipients and citations, 2007". Harvard Gazette. 2007-06-07. Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  49. ^ "Honorary degree ceremony". Durham University. Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  50. ^ Esther Addley. "From Russia with gong | Society". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  51. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - Woman's Hour - The Power List 2013". 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  52. ^ "Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell to be Royal Society's first female president". Retrieved 2015-12-30. 

External links[edit]