In 1974, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was overlooked by the Nobel Prize in favour of her male colleagues. Now, she’s giving away £2.3m to support other underrepresented groups in physics.
The world in 2018 can often feel like a cruel and troubling place. As a result, it’s more important than ever to remember that there are very good people on the planet: people who aren’t just fiercely talented, but who are also generous, kind, and determined to help others achieve their goals .
This week’s reminder of human kindness comes courtesy of 75-year-old astronomer Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. In 1967, Bell Burnell was a postgraduate physics student at the University of Cambridge when she made what has been described as “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century”. While monitoring data from a massive telescope, she stumbled across the existence of pulsars – rhythmically pulsing neutron stars that are formed in supernova explosions.
Three years after Bell’s incredible discovery, her two male supervisors were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. Despite Bell being the one to initially spot the pulsars’ signals, she was not listed as a co-recipient in the prize. The omission was controversial, even for the Sixties, and many prominent astronomers spoke out in support of Bell.
Now, more than 40 years after she made her initial discovery, Bell Burnell has been awarded a belated £2.3m prize for her work on radio pulsars and her career as a scientific leader.
But rather than keep the money from the prestigious Breakthrough Prize for herself, she has decided to give it all away – to support women, underrepresented ethnic minority and refugee students who want to become physics researchers.
“I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it,” Bell Burnell told BBC News.
She added that she hopes the prize money will help counteract the “unconscious bias” that still occurs in physics research, explaining that she feels it was her status as a “minority person” that made her open to discovering pulsars.
Not only was she one of the few women in the physics department at Cambridge in the Sixties, she also grew up in Northern Ireland and York – something that set her apart from the other students, who she said were mostly male and “southern English”.
“I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing,” she said. “In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.”
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Bell Burnell helped build the enormous telescope that first discovered pulsars, and was tasked with analysing its data, which came in the form of metres and metres of paper records. One day, as she reviewed the records, she noticed a flurry of unexpected activity in the data – activity that was later identified as pulsar signals.
She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to astronomy in 1999, and given a damehood in 2007. Between 2002 and 2004 she served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2014 – the first woman ever to hold that office.
It would have been easy for Bell Burnell to accept the £2.3m Breakthrough Prize money as compensation for her omission from the Nobel Prize in 1974. Nobody would have judged her for doing so; we’d probably all have been delighted that she was being recognised.
But this gesture proves that as well as being a trailblazing scientist, she is also a thoroughly decent woman. For that, she deserves all the praise in the world.
Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference to society, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.
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