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Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Astronomer who helped discover the Pulsar

Updated on October 20, 2017


Jocelyn Burnell entered into the world of astronomy with more fanfare that most astronomers receive in their careers. As a 24-year-old graduate student she was part of the team that observed the first known pulsar, which is a star that emits rapid pulses of radio signals. Her work was key to the discovery and soon lead to a Noble Prize. Even though Burnell didn’t receive the Nobel Price, this put her on the map in the astronomy community and lead to much publicity for herself and her group of astronomers.

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Early Years

Susan Jocelyn Bell, also known as Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, was born on July 15th, 1943 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She was the daughter of M. Allison Bell and Amagh Observatory architect G. Philip Bell. Her father was an avid reader and encouraged Jocelyn to be one as well. It was through her father's book collection that Jocelyn was first introduced to the world of astronomy. While she was born in Belfast, Jocelyn spent much of her childhood in Lurgan, Ireland.

Her parents encouraged her new found love of astronomy with the help of the staff at the nearby Armagh Observatory. Her parents believed adamantly that women should be educated. So when Jocelyn failed the '11 plus' examination, which was required for children of the UK in order to attend secondary school, her parents opted to send her to a boarding school to further her education. The exam was crucial for children in order to get to a 'grammar' school, which is the next step towards a university education.

Though the school in Lurgan agreed to keep her on for a few years, until she went to boarding school in England, the failure stuck with her for many years. In fact, she kept her low exam score a secret until later when she attained the status of Professor.

Looking back today, Jocelyn believes that the 11 plus curriculum at the time didn’t suit her, as there wasn’t any science in it. She was attending school in the 1950s, and while her scientific ability was recognized during her first year at Lurgan Grammar School when she took first in her class, the pending segregation of the sexes was disheartening. During her first year of secondary school, the boys were taken to the science lab and the girls were put into domestic science education classes, the UK equivalent of 'Home Economics'.

Women, at every age, were not encouraged to do science during this point of time in Northern Ireland, so while Jocelyn was geared for it the school was giving her a resounding "no." Her parents 'kicked up a fuss,' and Jocelyn, along with two other girls, were permitted to join the boys in the lab. Jocelyn attended Lurgan for two more years before she went to England.

The Bell family belonged to the Quaker faith and, as was tradition, she attended a Quaker School called Mount School, in York, England. Though it was initially traumatic, Jocelyn did well in her studies and eventually felt good about being away from home. England did not discourage girls from doing science, as they did in Northern Ireland, but, there was still a mixed standard of science education.

Anthony Hewish - 1974 Nobel Prize Laureate


Discovery of the first Pulsar

Education and Early Professional Work

The early years of uncertainty in Jocelyn's education paid off when she got accepted to Glasgow University to study science. She did well at Glasgow University and completed her B.S. in physics in 1965. She had high enough scored to be accepted to the University of Cambridge, which was and is a top of the line university full of Nobel Prize winnings scientists. It was during her time as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, while working under Antony Hewish, that she first discovered pulsars.

It was quite by accident that pulsars were even discovered, as the goal of the research project she was working on was to find quasars. Quasars, short for Quasi-Stellar Radio Source, are basically star like objects that give off radio signals. Quasars are now believed to be the centers of distant galaxies, about 2.6 to 16 billion light years away. Quasars are very bright, brighter than our entire galaxy which consists of 200 billion stars, and since each quasar is only about one light year across, they give off an immense amount of energy. It is also believed that quasars surround a supermassive black hole. It is interesting to note that scientists now know that only 10% of quasars give off radio signals.

At the time, Jocelyn Bell described quasars as "big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot of radio waves." The project Jocelyn and Hewish were working on had them using a telescopic array to search the cosmos for sources of natural radio waves.

The work was not all the glamour often associated with astronomers, at least not for Jocelyn. A special array of linked telescopes had to be designed and constructed on a four acre site at the Mullard Astronomy Observatory close to Cambridge. Jocelyn was in charge of the nitty-gritty aspects of getting the 81.5 megahertz project up and running. This meant that she connected miles of wire, banged stakes into the ground and dug much of it herself.

The hard manual labor paid off when the array was complete in July 1967. She immediately began the monumental task of looking for the interplanetary scintillation of compact radio sources. Jocelyn couldn't wait to get started on the research and analysis of the data. It was during the first few months of the array's operation that she found unusual signals in the miles of print-outs. She deemed these anomalies "scruff." An analysis of the areas of "scruff" indicated radio signals that were too fast and to regular to be from quasars. She also determined that these radio signals were coming from a fixed location outside of our solar system.

The first mysterious signal they detected was called "Little Green Man 1" (LGM-1), sort of an inside joke, it is now known as PSR B1919+21. Later documentation of the pulsar was later presented in the BBC Horizon series.

Jocelyn and Hewish began looking into the causes of the repeated signals. They were able to rule out orbiting satellites almost immediately. They then looked into, and eventually ruled out, radar, television signals and even alien communication. The questioned remained... what could be causing the fast recurring signals? Over the next few months, she discovered three more distinct signals.

The first publication to report on these unknown signals was a renowned scientific journal called Nature, in 1968. The lab she worked for also did a series of publications and interviews on the discovery. Reading some of the research papers they wrote, specifically those pertaining to the world of theoretical physics, determined that these signals must be coming from super-dense, rapidly spinning, collapsed stars. The media deemed these pulsars and the story was published world-wide. The four pulsars she discovered, are the first four known pulsars in human history.

To understand what a pulsar is, you must first understand, in laymen's terms, what a neutron star is. A Neutron star is comprised of a liquid mantle and a solid core. They have a crust which is only about an inch thick. However, due to their liquid mantle, they have a gravitational pull stronger than that of the earth by about one trillion times. When a Neutron star, which emits electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves from it's north and south poles has either of it's poles pointing toward earth, it will appear to pulse on a radio telescope.

Now, this means that all pulsars are a type of Neutron star, but not vice versa. Imagine if you will, a figure skater. They begin to spin with their arms outstretched. As they pull their limbs in and squat down, they will pick up speed, spinning faster and faster. This is an example of the Low of Angular Momentum, which states that as something spins and shrinks in size, but maintain the same mass, it will spin faster. This is seen with pulsars which are very compact and fast spinning, with rotations from as little as one rotation in 4.308 seconds to 1,122 rotations per second.


The Vela Pulsar, a neutron star corpse left from a titanic stellar supernova explosion, shoots through space powered by a jet emitted from one of the neutron star's rotational poles. Now a counter jet in front of the neutron star has been imaged by t
The Vela Pulsar, a neutron star corpse left from a titanic stellar supernova explosion, shoots through space powered by a jet emitted from one of the neutron star's rotational poles. Now a counter jet in front of the neutron star has been imaged by t

Reflections on women in science -- diversity and discomfort: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at TEDxStormont

Career and Personal Life

Soon after her discovery of pulsars, but before completing her Ph.D. in radio astronomy, Jocelyn Bell became Jocelyn Burnell when she married an English government worker by the name of Martin Burnell in 1968. His job took them all across the country. The birth of their son, Gavin Burnell, limited her career in some aspects, but she did manage to still work part-time while raising their son.

On her own, Jocelyn continued to study astronomy. She began learning everything she could about every electromagnetic wave spectrum, gaining much experience along the way. This led to a fellowship, junior teaching, at the University of Southampton. She taught there for three years, from 1970 to 1973. During her time teaching at Southampton, Jocelyn developed and calibrated a 1-10 million electron volt gamma-ray telescope.

After her period of teaching with Southampton University, she held a research and teaching position at Mullard Space Science Laboratory in London. Her focus there was on x-ray astronomy. She also studied infrared astronomy in Edinburgh.

Because of the fame Jocelyn had found in her early 20's it was never very difficult for her to find new work when her husband's job made them move. The downside to her early fame was that people kept expecting her to discover something new. She was expected to come up with amazing discoveries all of the time. She said in a later interview that "A discovery such as finding pulsars comes only about once per decade in the astronomical community as a whole, and so it is a bit hard to live up to such expectations."

Her work at Cambridge, in which she discovered the first pulsars, led to Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle receiving a Nobel Prize in 1974. Despite all of her brilliance, Jocelyn was left off of the Nobel Prize list, a discredit which many of her friends, fans, and fellow astronomers consider a discredit to her service. The fact that Hewish and his senior supervisor, Ryle, refused to demand that Burnell get recognized for her part in the discovery of pulsars added insult to injury. The Nobel Prize society got around the controversy by claiming the prize was presented to Ryle and Hewish was for cumulative contribution.

Burnell stated in a later interview that she was not upset about being left off of the Nobel Prize. She gives three reasons for this. The first is that demarcation disputes between a student and their supervisor are nearly impossible to resolve. Second, the supervisor is held responsible if the project should fail. She feels it should serve that the supervisor gets the benefit of the successes as well as the fault of failures. The third reason, and probably the one that says the most about her character is that she believes it would be disrespectful and demeaning to the status of the Nobel Prize itself if it was awarded to research students. She says she is, after all, in good company.

While it was short of the Nobel Prize, Burnell did receive the American Tentative Society Award for her work with pulsars in 1978.

Since her time at Cambridge, Jocelyn Burnell has studied every ground breaking field of astronomy she could get access too. This includes gamma-ray studies and x-rays. Over the course of her professional career, Burnell was a professor at Open University, dean of the sciences as the University of Bath, and VP of the Royal Astronomical Society, then later as president from 2002-2004.

Burnell was made the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1999 and the Dame (DBE) in 2007. The following year, she served two terms as the president of the Institute on Physics. She also found the time to be a member of the Royal Society.

Her divorce in 1989 did not deter Burnell from her pursuit of the sky and the access women have to the scientific fields. A portion of her life has been devoted to campaigning for the improved status of women in the academic and professional fields of astronomy. She is still active in the field of astronomy and is the patron of Burnell House at Cambridge Grammar School in Ballymena. She also still works as a research scientist at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College in London.

Unlike many who take the path of the sciences, Jocelyn remained active in the Quaker faith throughout her childhood and into adult life. In 1995, 1996 and 1997 she served as the clerk for the Quaker British Yearly Meeting. She delivered a lecture at Swathmore titled Broken for Life. She was also the plenary speaker at the U.S. Friends General Conference Gathering of 2000.

Jocelyn kept her beliefs separate from her science and out of the public eye until an interview with Joan Bakewell in 2006. As recently as 2007, she served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee and helped create Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: A Toolkit.

Her religion has become mostly a moot point to those who have worked with her in a scientific capacity. Her days are filled with being a visiting professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University where she is allowed to freely conduct whatever research fascinates her without the extra responsibilities being thrust upon her. Her legacy, Nobel Prize or not, is clearly secure. This was made apparent in a pulsar conference held in Sardinia in 2010 , which honored Jocelyn for her 45 years of contributions to the scientific community. She was also given the honor of christening their new radio telescope. Her long-time friend and fellow scientist, Dick Manchester, delivered a speech detailing all of her many contributions.

Her Contributions to the Next Generation

Her legacy will not stop with her. Jocelyn's son, Gavin Burnell has followed in his mother's footsteps and is now a physicist making his own marks on the scientific world. From 2008 until 2011, Gavin Burnell was a lecturer on Condensed Matter Physics. He has published over 85 articles and has a specific interest in understanding the physics of electron transport in materials through the fabrication and characterization of nanoscale devices.

Beyond her blood lineage, many women who are working in various scientific fields today, be it astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry or one of the other fields once exclusively for men, owe their very careers to Jocelyn Bell Burnell. It is the determination of her and other women in science like, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit, that dared to do what society dictated they weren't equipped to do that has opened up the doors to women today. Jocelyn Burnell started by failing, but rose to monumental heights by her own brilliance, perseverance and will.


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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Interesting and in depth hub into Jocelyn Bell-Burnell's life and achievements. Thank you for this informative hub Doug. Voted up.

    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 3 years ago

      What an inspirational life Jocelyn Burnell had. Well done Doug West. The striking feature includes her outstanding career in astronomy, her parents role in her intellectual development and Jocelyn role in her son's progress in the field. Thanks for sharing. Voted up.