Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Jocelyn B. Burnell, Astronomer & First Female President of the Institute of Physics

Image Credit: The New Yorker

Being made a Dame is just one of many outstanding accomplishments championed by Jocelyn Bell Burnell. The strides she made in the scientific community were enormous, both in respect to the magnitude and impact of her work, but also in regard to her feminist stance. She discovered pulsars (the incredibly dense corpse of a star) which could be used to test other fundamental aspects of physics, such as gravitational waves. It was such a momentous discovery that it forever entrenched astronomy as a branch of physics worth pursuing, as it previously had been marginalized, similarly to women in STEM. Furthermore, she has been hailed as a passionate teacher and prolific scholar, thus firmly establishing her as a feminist icon and inspiration to all budding young scientists.

Ironically enough, at age 11, Burnell failed to pass the entrance exam to an academically-selective school, a feat that seems absurd in hindsight. However, by the time she was 24, she was working on her Ph.D. under Antony Hewish, at Cambridge University in the tentative new field of radio astronomy. Despite a prevailing case of imposter syndrome, she undertook the enormous task of constructing a radio telescope, along with the help of five others, and she was the first person to run it once it was fully operational. With a bright mind and extreme capability, she began her study of quasars (very bright, very distant supermassive black holes) and over a six-month period, accumulated over 3 miles worth of read-out paper from the telescope. During her analysis, Burnell stumbled across an anomalous reading taking up less than a quarter of an inch, which she initially ignored. However, as her analysis progressed, she discovered that this anomalous patch repeatedly appeared in the same position in the sky, thus leading her to conclude that it must be some sort of cosmic mystery. As she upped the precision on her telescope, the readings became more identifiable and showcased a sense of timekeeping so precise it had never been observed before. This object she had discovered oscillated at one and a third times per second, which unusually, appeared not to be decaying. Her supervisor concluded that it must be an artificial signal and hence, nicknamed it LGM-1, standing for ‘little green men.’ However, after months of rigorous work, Burnell was not convinced. She proceeded to find a couple more, establishing a new class of cosmological objects. The results were published in a paper co-written by her and Hewish in 1968. However, in 1974, Hewish and his colleague Sir Martin Ryle received a Nobel Prize in Physics for “their” discovery.

This act of not adequately crediting women for their work in science has made frequent appearances throughout history. Burnell took this sexist act on the chin, acting largely unbothered and citing that she was proud that it showed that astronomy did have a noteworthy place in the field of physics. On top of this blatant act of exclusion, Burnell faced grief over wearing her engagement ring to work because at the time, it was considered shameful if a married woman had to work. However, she was able to rise above societal pressures at the time, and after taking a couple of years out following her husband through other electromagnetic approaches to astronomy, she returned to the scene as a prestigious visiting professor at Oxford University. Through this position, she was able to continue pursuing the study of neutron stars.

Image Credit: Nature

Amongst her other outstanding achievements, she was named the President of the Institute of Physics in 2008, being the first woman ever to do so. Bell Burnell also served as the president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004. Additionally, she received the Copley Medal in 2021 — the highest award in the field of astronomy. However, arguably, one of her most important contributions to the scientific community, outside of the immense value presented by the observable study of neutron stars, was the allocation of her prize money to funding research by underrepresented groups. As a woman who has been subjected to injustice in her field, she has taken admirable measures to help mitigate that experience for others. Currently, the prize money she was awarded in 2018 through her discovery has gone into the ‘Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund’ and supported 4 graduate students in their research. This display of solidarity and support for underrepresented groups showcases the level of influence women in STEM can have in changing centuries of gender-based prejudice against the female contribution to science. Undoubtedly, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a stellar example of perseverance and intellect, and her legacy is an inspiration and encouragement to all women in this field.

by Laura Jewsbury

References

Britannica. “Jocelyn Bell Burnell | British Astronomer.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022, www.britannica.com/biography/Jocelyn-Bell-Burnell. Accessed 29 May 2022.

Drake, Nadia. “Meet the Woman Who Found the Most Useful Stars in the Universe.” Science, 6 Sept. 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/news-jocelyn-bell-burnell-breakthrough-prize-pulsars-astronomy. Accessed 29 May 2022.

Quakers in the World. “Jocelyn Bell Burnell.” Www.quakersintheworld.org, 2015, www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/366/Jocelyn-Bell-Burnell. Accessed 29 May 2022.

Walsh, Louise. “Journeys of Discovery: Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Pulsars.” University of Cambridge, 29 Nov. 2020, www.cam.ac.uk/stories/journeysofdiscovery-pulsars. Accessed 29 May 2022.

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