Jocelyn Bell Burnell Biography

Astronomer, Scientist, Educator(1943–)
British astrophysicist, scholar and trailblazer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the space-based phenomena known as pulsars, going on to establish herself as an esteemed leader in her field.


Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1943. As a research assistant, she helped build a large radio telescope and discovered pulsars, providing the first direct evidence for the existence of rapidly spinning neutron stars. In addition to her affiliation with Open University, she has served as dean of science at the University of Bath and president of the Royal Astronomical Society. Bell Burnell has also earned countless awards and honors during her distinguished academic career.

Star Child

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born Susan Jocelyn Bell on July 15, 1943, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her parents were educated Quakers who encouraged their daughter’s early interest in science with books and trips to a nearby observatory. Despite her appetite for learning, however, Bell Burnell had difficulty in grade school and failed an exam intended to measure her readiness for higher education.

Undeterred, her parents sent her to England to study at a Quaker boarding school, where she quickly distinguished herself in her science classes. Having proven her aptitude for higher learning, Bell Burnell attended the University of Glasgow, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1965.

Little Green Men

In 1965, Bell Burnell began her graduate studies in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge. One of several research assistants and students working under astronomers Anthony Hewish, her thesis advisor, and Martin Ryle, over the next two years she helped construct a massive radio telescope designed to monitor quasars. By 1967 it was operational and Bell Burnell was tasked with analyzing the data it produced. After spending endless hours poring over the charts, she noticed some anomalies that didn’t fit with the patterns produced by quasars and called them to Hewish’s attention. 

Over the ensuing months, the team systematically eliminated all possible sources of the radio pulses—which they affectionately labeled Little Green Men, in reference to their potentially artificial origins—until they were able to deduce that they were made by neutron stars, fast-spinning collapsed stars too small to form black holes.

Nobel Prize Controversy

Their findings were published in the February 1968 issue of Nature and caused an immediate sensation. Intrigued as much by the novelty of a woman scientist as by the astronomical significance of the team's discovery, which were labeled pulsars—for pulsating radio stars—the press picked up the story and showered Bell Burnell with attention. That same year, she earned her Ph.D. in radio astronomy from Cambridge University.

However, in 1974, only Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work. Many in the scientific community raised their objections, believing that Bell Burnell had been unfairly snubbed. But Bell Burnell humbly rejected the notion, feeling that the prize had been properly awarded given her status as a graduate student, though she has also acknowledged that gender discrimination may have been a contributing factor.

Life on the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Nobel Prize or not, Bell Burnell’s depth of knowledge regarding radio astronomy and the electromagnetic spectrum has earned her a lifetime of respect in the scientific community and an esteemed career in academia. After receiving her doctorate from Cambridge, she taught and studied gamma ray astronomy at the University of Southampton. Bell Burnell then spent eight years as a professor at University College London, where she focused on x-ray astronomy. 

During this same time she began her affiliation with Open University, where she would later work as a professor of physics while studying neurons and binary stars, and also conducted research in infrared astronomy at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. She was the dean of science at the University of Bath from 2001 to 2004 and has been a visiting professor at such esteemed institutions as Princeton and Oxford.

Array of Honors and Achievements 

In recognition of her achievements, Bell Burnell has received countless awards and honors, including Commander and Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1999 and 2007, respectively; an Oppenheimer prize in 1978; and the 1989 Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, for which she would serve as president from 2002 to 2004. She was president of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010 and has served as president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh since 2014. Bell Burnell also has honorary degrees from an array of universities too numerous to mention.

Personal Life

In 1968, Jocelyn married Martin Burnell, from whom she took her surname, with the two eventually divorcing in 1993. The two have a son, Gavin, who has also become a physicist. 

A documentary on Bell Burnell's life, Northern Star, aired on the BBC in 2007.

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