Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Image: Institute of Physics Birth: July 15, 1943 Specialty: Astrophysics Major Contributions: Discovered the first radio pulsars Former President of Royal Astronomical Society Former President of Institute of Physics

Image: Institute of Physics
Birth: July 15, 1943
Specialty: Astrophysics
Major Contributions:
Discovered the first radio pulsars
Former President of Royal Astronomical Society
Former President of Institute of Physics

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Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the discoverer of radio pulsars, has had to be a strong person to cope with the rampant sexism she has faced during her career as an astrophysicist.

Attending the University of Glasgow as the only woman studying honors physics in her year, she was met with harassment as male students would wolf whistle and stomp their feet whenever a woman entered a lecture hall as per school tradition. After earning her degree she enrolled at Cambridge University to work in the emerging field of radio astronomy.

Bell Burnell’s first years at Cambridge were spent assisting in the building of a radio telescope from running wire to beating posts into the ground with a sledgehammer. Once information started being collected she was responsible for the analysis of miles of paper results looking for quasars. She did find the quasars and man-made signals but there was something else on the paper – calling it scruff. Not sure of what she had found she continued to analyze the data and saw the same signal again.

Dismissed by her supervisor she continued to test the data and found that what she was observing was a rapid and accurate pulse. The speed of the pulse set the size of the object as being small but the accuracy of the pulse meant it was big in terms of it energy reserves.  Nothing in the world of astronomy at the time fit these parameters except for the four objects Bell Burnell charted. Publishing these results in the journal Nature the press was  baffled that a young woman would be a scientist let alone the discoverer of a new astronomical object.

Bell Burnell now feels she is finally in a position to stand up for women working in the sciences and refuses to stay silent about the treatment of women scientists in the past and present.  Doing so with her own brand of strength and humility she has become a leader in the scientific community including being the first woman to serve in the role as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Written by Angela Goad

Sources:

Famous Scientists: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Biography.com: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

StarChild: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

A Science Odyssey: Jocelyn Bell

BBC The Life Scientific: Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

See Also:

Wikipedia: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Australia Telescope National Facility: What is Radio Astronomy?

Cambridge Physics: Pulsars