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The Story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Do you sometimes think life is unfair and you are not getting credit for work well done? Do some of your achievements not get their just rewards? If so, you might do well hearing about Jocelyn Bell Burnell and how she remained positive and cheerful despite being denied a well-earned Nobel Prize.

Bell Burnell is one of the world’s foremost experts in radio astronomy. Radio astronomers study planets, stars, and galaxies that emit signals at radio frequencies. Just like a normal telescope captures light signals, radio telescopes measure the radio wave signals from distant objects in our universe. (Dear Reader, astronomers estimate that there are an astonishing 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 billion trillion) stars in space – all emitting radiation in different frequencies!).

In the 1960s radio astronomy was a new field. When Bell Burnell joined Cambridge University as a Ph.D. student her first task was to build a radio telescope. For the first three years, she was outside the laboratory, in the field constructing this new type of telescope. It was very hard and often physically demanding work which Bell Burnell completed with her characteristic positive attitude.

Next Bell Burnell started using the telescope to observe distant stars. Her careful observations resulted in her finding an object that was emitting regular pulsed radio signals. At first, her Ph.D. supervisor and other colleagues all thought she was making an error and that the signal was from some source on earth. It would have been very easy for a young
Ph.D. student to give up, but Bell Burnell was very careful and exact in her work. She analyzed her observations in great detail, and she persisted even when most of her colleagues and other astronomers disregarded her findings.

Soon other similar objects were observed and gradually astronomers realized that Bell Burnell had discovered what is now known as Pulsars. Pulsars are rapidly spinning stars that have run out of fuel to burn and shine. Pulsars sometimes come in pairs and their movements are predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Bell Burnell had discovered an amazing new phenomenon in the universe.

In 1974 Bell Burnell’s Ph.D. supervisor was awarded the Nobel prize in large part for the discovery of Pulsars. Bell Burnell, who had built her own radio telescope and had discovered Pulsars was overlooked. Bell Burnell said, “Arguably, my student status and perhaps my gender were also my downfall with respect to the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Professor Antony Hewish and Professor Martin Ryle. At the time, science was still perceived as being carried out [only] by distinguished men.”

In the face of such a travesty, Bell Burnell could have loudly complained or even given up working. However, Bell Burnell remained focused on her scientific work and was not disheartened. Later she was given many other prizes and awards for her work. In the 1950s when Bell Burnell was growing up it was rare to see a woman in science. As an undergraduate at Glasgow University, she was the only woman doing physics, and every time she attended the course lectures the men students used to whistle at her. Bell Burnell said, “When I started secondary school, it was assumed that the girls would do domestic science and the boys would do science, and I wasn’t too happy with that.” What kept Bell Burnell from giving up was her deep love for science and a passion for learning more about the universe. What also helped were her supportive parents and the encouragement she got by a high school teacher who inspired her to take up physics.

Commenting on how much we may discover and what parts of our fantastic universe might never be known, Bell Burnell said, “We live inside our universe and cannot get a bird’s-eye view of it from outside. And we cannot even see all of our universe. Distant parts of it are expanding away from us so fast that they are invisible; they go faster than the speed of light. Having bigger telescopes to see fainter stars will not help us here: invisible is truly invisible!.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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