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