Scientist Spotlight: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Brunell, née Susan Jocelyn Bell, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1943. She is regarded as a great astronomer and astrophysicist, but it didn’t always seem like she would enter a highly academic field. When Jocelyn was 11, she took a British examination required for all who wanted a higher education. Jocelyn failed. At this, her family sent her to a boarding school which was lacking some science equipment but had a promising physics teacher.

Jocelyn ended up studying physics at Glagsgow University and received a doctorate in radio astronomy from the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, Jocelyn worked with Anthony Hewish and helped him construct a large radio telescope to study quasars. It was when she was reviewing the printouts from the telescope that she noticed a “bits of scruff” like radio signals that were too regular and too fast to have originated from quasars.

Hewish and Jocelyn worked for moths to determine where these signals were coming from and even jokingly thought of the possibility of Little Green Men trying to communicate with earthlings. After using more specialized and sensitive equipment, Hewish and Jocelyn discovered that the radio signals were come from collapsed stars, donned “pulsars” by the media.

Despite her part in their discovery, Hewish and Martin Ryle were awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of pulsars, not Jocelyn. She did not really mind, however, because at the time of the discovery she was a student and did not think she would have been eligible because of her status anyway.

After her time at Cambridge, Jocelyn taught at the University of Southhampton and researched gamma ray astronomy. She also became a professor at the University College of London in addition to performing research and teaching in x-ray astronomy at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Jocelyn taught at the Open University and studied infrared astronomy at the Royal University in Edinburgh. She was appointed dean of science at the University of Bath and also became a visiting professor at Oxford.

Jocelyn was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1999 and Dame in 2007. She became a member of the Royal Society in 2003 and served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and later on served as president of the Institute of Physics.


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