Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell


English Astronomer

Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars when she was a graduate student. Despite this accomplishment, Burnell's professional life as an astrophysicist has been erratic. A researcher, teacher, and administrator, Burnell's most significant position has been as an astronomical observer who provided new information regarding the life cycle of stars. Her work on pulsars allowed other astronomers to comprehend previously unknown aspects of celestial physics. Burnell's research also benefitted male colleagues who won the Nobel Prize for pulsar-related achievements.

Born on July 15, 1943, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Burnell, the daughter of G. Philip and M. Allison Bell, became interested in science when her father took her to the Armagh Observatory. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1965, completing a doctorate in radio astronomy at Cambridge University three years later. Here, Burnell built a radio telescope for her graduate advisor, Anthony Hewish (1924- ), to look for quasars. She operated the instrument and scrutinized data, noting possible quasars and identifying occurrences of human-generated interference. Burnell was using this instrument in 1967 when she recognized that another, distinctive type of signal had been recorded according to sidereal time, which is time based on Earth's daily cycle relative to the stars instead of to the Sun. Burnell began to focus on determining the source of these mysterious pulses that were rapidly being emitted in predictable patterns.

Burnell believed that the signals came from a star because they were sent consistently from the same place that she observed with the telescope at different times. In order to study the source's structure, Burnell made a high-speed recording and determined that the pulses occurred approximately every one and a third seconds, which was faster and more constant than other stars' signals. For several months she monitored this phenomenon, finding three additional radio signal sources that seemed to be pulsating—thus inspiring the term "pulsar," which was coined by a journalist.

Burnell and Hewish published articles about pulsars, declaring that these objects were located far outside the solar system but inside the galaxy. Using this information, other astronomers also found pulsars, increasing knowledge of their properties and of how they produce radio signals. Pulsars were defined as dense, burned-out neutron stars that rotate quickly and emit radio waves from magnetic and electric fields.

Burnell and Hewish received the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia's Albert A. Michelson Prize in 1973, but Burnell was excluded fromNobel Prize honors for physics the next year. Hewish and Sir Martin Ryle (1918-1984) were awarded the Nobel for their contributions to radio astrophysics, particularly in Hewish's case his involvement in the discovery of pulsars. Burnell, however, was ignored as the person who originally found pulsars. Prominent astronomers argued that Burnell should have been included with the Nobel winners in recognition of her pioneering work.

Burnell also became frustrated when many male colleagues did not understand how her career was affected by her family. She moved frequently as her husband, Martin Burnell, accepted new employment, and her diabetic son required constant supervision. Working in part-time and temporary positions, Burnell focused on gamma-ray and x-ray astronomy using available resources. She held research and teaching positions at the University of Southampton in England, served as editor of The Observatory, and was affiliated with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at London's University College.

During the 1980s, Burnell, as a senior research fellow at The Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, directed the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope section, which oversaw British contributions to a multi-national telescope project located in Hawaii. She also managed EDISON, an infrared observatory. In 1991 Burnell received the physics department chair at Open University. She has published significant papers in leading scholarly journals and edited a book about infrared space observations. Burnell has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Herschel Medal, presented to her by the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1989.