Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Who Discovered Pulsars, Was Just Awarded $3 Million for Her Work—More Than 40 Years After Nobel Prize Snub

Silicon Republic, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Silicon Republic, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Jocelyn Bell Burnell's story is an unfortunately familiar one: She changed the field of astrophysics with her discovery of pulsars in 1967, only for her work to be credited to a man when the Nobel Prize was awarded for that very achievement in 1974. Now, decades later, this part of Bell Burnell's career has received the happy ending that many overlooked female scientists never get. As The Guardian reports, the astrophysicist has been awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her work.

Pulsars, incredibly dense neutron stars that release powerful pulses of radio waves, went undetected until 1967, when Bell Burnell spotted one using a radio telescope she had helped build as a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University. Intrigued by the unusual bit of data, she returned to the observatory to see if she could spot the repetitive beams of radio waves once more. After about a month of watching the same part of the sky closely, the signals resurfaced.

She shared her discovery with Antony Hewish, her Ph.D. supervisor at the time. He initially dismissed the waves as manmade radio interference, but eventually Bell Burnell was able to convince him—and the rest of the science community—that the strange pulses were emitted by stars. The breakthrough shook the world of astrophysics, and even secured the Nobel Prize in 1974. But when it came time to announce the award, Hewish received all of the recognition and Bell Burnell was ignored.

The snub hardly marked the end of Bell Burnell's career. She's since been named the first female president of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and she helped found the Athena SWAN program, a charter that works to recognize and advance the careers of women working in STEM fields in either academic or research-based positions.

The latest institution to honor her, the Breakthrough Prize, is currently the most lucrative science prize in the world. In the past it has honored achievements in fundamental physics, including the discovery of the Higgs boson particle and gravitational waves. Jocelyn Bell Burnell plans to donate her $3 million in prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund Ph.D educations for students underrepresented in her field.

[h/t The Guardian]

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?


Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

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An Ice Age Wolf Head Was Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost


Don’t lose your head in Siberia, or it may be found preserved thousands of years later.

A group of mammoth tusk hunters in eastern Siberia recently found an Ice Age wolf’s head—minus its body—in the region’s permafrost. Almost perfectly preserved thanks to tens of thousands of years in ice, researchers dated the specimen to the Pleistocene Epoch—a period between 1.8 million and 11,700 years ago characterized by the Ice Age. The head measures just under 16 inches long, The Siberian Times reports, which is roughly the same size as a modern gray wolf’s.

Believed to be between 2 to 4 years old around the time of its death, the wolf was found with its fur, teeth, and soft tissue still intact. Scientists said the region’s permafrost, a layer of ground that remains permanently frozen, preserved the head like a steak in a freezer. Researchers have scanned the head with a CT scanner to reveal more of its anatomy for further study.

Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at London’s Natural History Museum, witnessed the head’s discovery in August 2018. She performed carbon dating on the tissue and tweeted that it was about 32,000 years old.

The announcement of the discovery was made in early June to coincide with the opening of a new museum exhibit, "The Mammoth," at Tokyo’s Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The exhibit features more than 40 Pleistocene specimens—including a frozen horse and a mammoth's trunk—all in mint condition, thanks to the permafrost’s effects. (It's unclear if the wolf's head is included in the show.)

While it’s great to have a zoo’s worth of prehistoric beasts on display, scientists said the number of animals emerging from permafrost is increasing for all the wrong reasons. Albert Protopopov, director of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha, told CNN that the warming climate is slowly but surely thawing the permafrost. The higher the temperature, the likelier that more prehistoric specimens will be found.

And with average temperatures rising around the world, we may find more long-extinct creatures rising from the ice.