Jocelyn Bell Burnell bigraphy, stories - astronomer, teacher, physicist

Jocelyn Bell Burnell : biography

15 July 1943 -

Dame (Susan) Jocelyn Bell Burnell, DBE, FRS, FRAS (born 15 July 1943) is a Northern Irish astrophysicist. As a postgraduate student, she discovered the first radio pulsars while under her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, for which Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Martin Ryle. Bell Burnell was left out, because at that time, only the "senior men" would receive credit. 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.

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, including Sir Fred Hoyle. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in their press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, 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."

Academic career

She graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Philosophy (physics) in 1965, and obtained her Ph.D. degree from New Hall (since renamed Murray Edwards College) of the University of Cambridge in 1969. At Cambridge, she worked with Hewish and others to construct"...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 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. 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.

After finishing her Ph.D., 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, Bell Burnell was also a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University.

In 1991, she was appointed as a Professor of Physics at the Open University, a position that she held for ten years. She was also a visiting professor at Princeton University in the United States. Before retiring, she was Dean of Science at the University of Bath (2001–04), and she was the President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004. She is currently a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College. She served two years as the President of the Institute of Physics, her term ended in October 2010.


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

  • The Albert A. Michelson Medal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia (1973, jointly with Dr. Hewish).
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize from the Center for Theoretical Studies, University of Miami (1978).
  • Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize of the American Astronomical Society (1987). Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize
  • Herschel Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1989).
  • Jansky Lectureship before the National Radio Astronomy Observatory(1995).
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Astronomy (1999)
  • Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society (2000).
  • Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) (March 2003).
  • Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to Astronomy (2007)
  • The Grote Reber Medal at the General Assembly of the International Radio Science Union in Istanbul (19 August 2011)
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