Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Innovator in Focus

Museum of Innovation
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Astrophysicist, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discovered pulsars in 1967. This discovery earned a Nobel Prize for Physics.
Her lifetime of work has been dedicated to inspiring others within the scientific community and has enabled many others to pursue a career in this field of research.

Personal Life

Born in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was introduced to science and maths by her father at a young age. She regularly accompanied him on surveys of land in his role as an architect and developed a love of science and a respect for data. An avid reader, she read the books he borrowed from the Linenhall Library. One in particular, Fred Hoyle’s Frontiers of Astronomy, proved to be the spark that ignited her passion for astronomy and physics and steered her to a career that has spanned over 50 years.

Her parents supported her desire to learn science at secondary school at a time when it was common for only boys to study the subject. She chose to study at Glasgow University and, like many women pursuing a career in science at the time, faced derision and bullying from her male peers. She graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics with honours and went on to study at Cambridge University where her discovery of pulsars in 1967, solidified her place as one of the most important scientists in the world.

She has one son, Gavin Burnell, who is also a Physicist.

Professional Life

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s time started at Cambridge University in 1967, where she began working with Antony Hewish on the study of quasars assisting him in the construction of an array radio telescope. Quasars had only recently been discovered and much of her work involved examining pages of radio wave signals that were being picked up by the radio telescope. Her close examination of these signals led to one of the most important discoveries in astrophysics, pulsars.

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Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Pulsars are neutron stars that spin very fast and emit beams of electromagnetic radiation. They are formed when stars, even larger than the sun, run out of fuel and collapse causing a massive explosion called a supernova.

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Innovator In Focus - Pulsars

The discovery of pulsars culminated in the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Physics to her supervisor, Antony Hewish and fellow Cambridge astronomer, Martin Ryle. Controversially, Professor Bell Burnell was not a recipient of the award but she felt, as a research student, it would not have been appropriate to have been included.

She went on to work at several different universities around the UK as well as being a tutor for the Open University. In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth £2.3million, for her discovery of pulsars. She donated it to the Institute of Physics “to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers”. In July 2022, her discovery of pulsars was featured on the new Ulster Bank £50 note highlighting Northern Irish women in science.

Watch the video below to learn more!

  • BSc in Physics at Glasgow University 1965
  • PhD in Radio Astronomy at Cambridge University 1969
  • Research then Teaching Fellow University of Southampton 1968-1973
  • Open University tutor 1973-1987
  • Part time technical then research staff at Professor at University College London 1974-1982
  • Part time staff, Royal Observatory Edinburgh 1982 - 91
  • Professor of Physics at Open University 1991-2001
  • Dean of Science at University of Bath 2001-2004
  • Visiting Professor at University of Oxford 2004- present