Marvelous Woman Monday

Jocelyn Bell Burnell has been in the news as of late because she is FINALLY being awarded the $3 million Nobel Breakthrough Prize 50 years after her pioneering work in physics. This story is some BULLSHIT.

Jocelyn was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland in 1943. Her father was an architect for the Armagh Planetarium, and she was often encouraged to pursue astronomy by the staff there. She was also very into reading her father’s astronomy books. She attended the Preparatory Department of Lurgan College from 1948 to 1956. School policy did not permit girls to study science, but her parents (along with others) protested the policy after Jocelyn began complaining at home. By the end of the year, she was first in her class.

She enrolled in the Mount School where she developed an aptitude for physics because of her awesome teacher, Mr. Tillott. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science in Natural Philosophy (physics), then earned a PhD from Cambridge in 1969. She often the only woman in her classes and was heckled by her male peers. Assholes.

It was during her time at Cambridge that Jocelyn first worked with Antony Hewish to construct the Interplanetary Scintillation Array to study quasars (trying to understand that sentence makes me feel super dumb). She was assigned to use Hewish’s custom-built telescope to retrieve and analyze information on quasars. In July 1967, she determined that there was “a squiggle” on her chart-recorder data sheets. Hewish initially insisted it was nothing, but Jocelyn persisted.

She was able to establish that the signal was pulsing more frequently and dubbed “Little Green Man 1” as the source. She and Hewish could not come up with an explanation for the signal, so she continued to monitor it. Just before Christmas 1967, she found a second pulsing signal on another area of her chart. Of the discovery, she said, “When you get a second one of something it makes the first one so much more believable. This begins to look like a new kind of star of which there’s probably a whole lot in the sky.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell poses at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at Cambridge University in a 1968 newspaper photo.

Jocelyn continued to identify additional signals. In February 1968, she and Hewish published the findings in Nature. Hewish was listed as first author and Jocelyn was second. She was just 24. The paper gained a huge amount of attention for the pair. Jocelyn recalled that reporters would ask Hewish the scientific questions and turn to her for the “human interest” component. Reporters asked her BRA SIZE, questioned her romantic history, and even once told her to unbutton her blouse more! UNREAL.

They still had not discovered what the pulses were, but continued to study them ad theorize. in 1968, other teams discovered additional signals which confirmed Hewish and Jocelyn’s theory that the signals were coming from pulsars. These pulsars are the “swiftly spinning cores of collapsed stars” with powerful magnetic fields that launch radiation flashes across the sky (like a lighthouse). Her find is considered among the most important 20th century astronomical discoveries. The pulsars are used for investigating space-time and the darker regions of the Universe, and are important tools for testing physics.

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After graduation, she was working in the University College London in 1974 when a colleague came “steaming” into her office.The Nobel Prize committee announced the Prize for Physics and her name had not been included. Hewish had received it. Jocelyn was thrilled that her work had been included as it was the first time the physics Nobel had ever been awarded to someone studying stars. Unlike her upset colleague, she had not expected to be included as a graduate student. She viewed the prize as recognition that “her stars” had gained respect for the use of physics in astronomy.

While Jocelyn harbored no ill will toward the committee, members of the scientific community were outraged. Jocelyn had helped build the array to make the observation, was the one who noticed it, and was the one kept pushing that it was a real signal. Only two women have received Nobel Prizes in physics, and none have been in the last 50 years. She was finally awarded the Nobel for the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics earlier this month. She also received a $3 million award that she is investing in helping refugees, minority students, and women to become physics researches themselves. Jocelyn is AWESOME.

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Professionally, Jocelyn worked for the University of Southampton from 1968 to 1973, the University College London from 1974 to 1982, and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh from 1982 to 1991. In 1986, she was named as the project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. She served as a Professor of Physics at the Open University, a visiting professor at Princeton, and was a Dean of Science at the University of Bath. She served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004. She is currently a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford. In February, she was announced as the Chancellor of the University of Dundee. Jocelyn has been BUSY. She has won more awards and honors than I can even begin to list, but she is clearly an outstanding and brilliant scientist.

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More reading:

“Scientist Whose Male Boss Won Nobel For Her Work Is Giving New $3 Million Prize Away”

“Jocelyn Bell Burnell Awarded for Work in Astrophysics Over 50 Years After Pulsar Discovery”

“She made the discovery, but a man got the Nobel. A half-century later, she’s won a $3 million prize.”

“6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism“

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