Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS FRSE FRAS FInstP (/bɜːrˈnɛl/; born 15 July 1943) is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who, as a postgraduate student, co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967.[9] She was credited with "one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century".[10] The discovery was recognised by the award of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, but despite the fact that she was the first to observe the pulsars,[11] Bell was not one of the recipients of the prize.

The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Bell's thesis supervisor Antony Hewish[5][6] was listed first, Bell second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with the astronomer Martin Ryle. Many prominent astronomers criticised Bell's omission,[12] including Sir Fred Hoyle.[13][14] In 1977, Bell Burnell played down this controversy, saying, "I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them."[15] The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in its press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics,[16] cited Ryle and Hewish for their pioneering work in radio-astrophysics, with particular mention of Ryle's work on aperture-synthesis technique, and Hewish's decisive role in the discovery of pulsars.

Bell served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, as president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010, and as interim president of the Institute following the death of her successor, Marshall Stoneham, in early 2011.

In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She donated the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students become physics researchers.[17][18]

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Launch of IYA 2009, Paris - Grygar, Bell Burnell cropped
Bell Burnell in 2009
Susan Jocelyn Bell

15 July 1943 (age 75)[1]
Lurgan, Northern Ireland[2]
Alma mater
Known forCo-discovering the first four pulsars[3]
Martin Burnell
(m. 1968; div. 1993)
ChildrenGavin Burnell
Scientific career
ThesisThe Measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method (1968)
Doctoral advisorAntony Hewish[4][5][6]
  • Fred Hoyle Frontiers of Astronomy (1955)
  • Henry Tillott[7] (her school physics teacher)

Education and early life

Susan Jocelyn Bell (Burnell), 1967
Jocelyn Bell, June 1967

Jocelyn Bell was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, to M. Allison and G. Philip Bell.[2][1] Her father was an architect who had helped design the Armagh Planetarium,[19] and during visits she was encouraged by the staff to pursue astronomy professionally.[20] Young Jocelyn also discovered her father's books on astronomy.

She grew up in Lurgan and attended the Preparatory Department[a] of Lurgan College from 1948 to 1956,[2] where she, like the other girls, was not permitted to study science until her parents (and others) protested against the school's policy. Previously, the girls' curriculum had included such subjects as cooking and cross-stitching rather than science.[22]

She failed the eleven-plus exam and her parents sent her to The Mount School,[1] a Quaker girls' boarding school in York, England. There she was favourably impressed by her physics teacher, Mr Tillott, and stated:

You do not have to learn lots and lots ... of facts; you just learn a few key things, and ... then you can apply and build and develop from those ... He was a really good teacher and showed me, actually, how easy physics was.[23]

Bell Burnell was the subject of the first part of the BBC Four three-part series Beautiful Minds, directed by Jacqui Farnham.[24]

Career and research

Chart Showing Radio Signal of First Identified Pulsar
Chart on which Burnell first recognised evidence of a pulsar, exhibited at Cambridge university Library
Composite Optical/X-ray image of the Crab Nebula, showing synchrotron emission in the surrounding pulsar wind nebula, powered by injection of magnetic fields and particles from the central pulsar

She graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Philosophy (physics), with honours, in 1965 and obtained a PhD degree from the University of Cambridge in 1969. At Cambridge, she attended New Hall, Cambridge, and worked with Hewish and others to construct[b] the Interplanetary Scintillation Array to study quasars, which had recently been discovered.[c]

In July 1967, she detected a bit of "scruff" on her chart-recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars.[25] She established that the signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse every one and a third seconds. Temporarily dubbed "Little Green Man 1" (LGM-1) the source (now known as PSR B1919+21) was identified after several years as a rapidly rotating neutron star. This was later documented by the BBC Horizon series.[26]

She worked at the University of Southampton between 1968 and 1973, University College London from 1974 to 82 and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (1982–91). From 1973 to 1987 she was a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University.[27] In 1986, she became the project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.[28] She was Professor of Physics at the Open University from 1991 to 2001. She was also a visiting professor at Princeton University in the United States and Dean of Science at the University of Bath (2001–04),[29] and President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004.

Bell Burnell is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Mansfield College.[30] She was President of the Institute of Physics between 2008 and 2010.[31] In February 2018 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee.[32] In 2018, Bell Burnell visited Parkes, NSW, to deliver the keynote John Bolton lecture at the CWAS AstroFest event.[33][34]

In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth three million dollars (£2.3 million), for her discovery of radio pulsars.[35] The Special Prize, in contrast to the regular annual prize, is not restricted to recent discoveries.[36] She donated all of the money "to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers",[37] the funds to be administered by the Institute of Physics.[18]

Nobel Prize controversy

That Bell did not receive recognition in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics has been a point of controversy ever since. She helped build the Interplanetary Scintillation Array over two years[8] and initially noticed the anomaly, sometimes reviewing as much as 96 feet (29 m) of paper data per night. Bell later claimed that she had to be persistent in reporting the anomaly in the face of scepticism from Hewish, who was initially insistent that it was due to interference and man-made. She spoke of meetings held by Hewish and Ryle to which she was not invited.[38] In 1977, she commented on the issue:

First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not![15]




Her publications[58] include:

  • Burnell, S. Jocelyn (1989). Broken for Life. Swarthmore Lecture. London: Quaker Home Service. ISBN 978-0-85245-222-6.
  • Riordan, Maurice; Burnell, S. Jocelyn (27 October 2008). Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. ISBN 978-1-903080-10-8.

Personal and non-academic life

Bell Burnell is house patron of Burnell House at Cambridge House Grammar School in Ballymena. She has campaigned to improve the status and number of women in professional and academic posts in the fields of physics and astronomy.[59][60]

Quaker activities and beliefs

From her school days, she has been an active Quaker and served as Clerk to the sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting in 1995, 1996 and 1997. She delivered a Swarthmore Lecture under the title Broken for Life,[61] at Yearly Meeting in Aberdeen on 1 August 1989, and was the plenary speaker at the US Friends General Conference Gathering in 2000. She spoke of her personal religious history and beliefs in an interview with Joan Bakewell in 2006.[62]

Bell Burnell served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee, which produced Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit in February 2007.[63] In 2013 she gave a James Backhouse Lecture which was published in a book entitled A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious?, in which Burnell reflects about how cosmological knowledge can be related to what the Bible, Quakerism or Christian faith states.[64]


In 1968, soon after her discovery, Bell married Martin Burnell; the couple divorced in 1993 after separating in 1989. Her husband was a local government officer, and his career took them to various parts of Britain. She worked part-time for many years while raising her son, Gavin Burnell, who is a member of the condensed matter physics group at the University of Leeds.[65]

See also


  1. ^ The Preparatory Department of Lurgan College closed in 2004,[21] the college becoming a selective grammar school for ages 14–19.
  2. ^ "... upon entering the faculty, each student was issued a set of tools: a pair of pliers, a pair of long-nose pliers, a wire cutter, and a screwdriver...", said during a public lecture in Montreal during the 40 Years of Pulsars conference, 14 August 2007
  3. ^ Interplanetary scintillation allows compact sources to be distinguished from extended ones.


  1. ^ a b c d Who's Who 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Lurgan Mail 2007.
  3. ^ Bell Burnell 2007, pp. 579–581.
  4. ^ Bell 1968.
  5. ^ a b Hewish et al. 1968, p. 709.
  6. ^ a b Pilkington et al. 1968, p. 126.
  7. ^ AIP 2000.
  8. ^ a b The Life Scientific 2011.
  9. ^ Cosmic Search Vol. 1.
  10. ^ a b BBC Scotland 2014.
  11. ^ Hargittai 2003, p. 240.
  12. ^ Westly 2008.
  13. ^ Judson 2003.
  14. ^ McKie 2010.
  15. ^ a b NYAS 1977.
  16. ^ 1974.
  17. ^ Sample 2018.
  18. ^ a b Kaplan & Farzan 2018.
  19. ^ Johnston 2007, pp. 2–3.
  20. ^ Bertsch McGrayne 1998.
  21. ^ Lurgan College history.
  22. ^ Kaufman 2016.
  23. ^ Interview at NRAO 1995.
  24. ^ BBC 2011b.
  25. ^ The Open University.
  26. ^ BBC 2010.
  27. ^ Jocelyn Bell Burnell profile.
  28. ^ Notable Women 1997.
  29. ^ University of Bath 2004.
  30. ^ UoO 2007.
  31. ^ Institute of Physics: Council.
  32. ^ Univ of Dundee 2018.
  33. ^ Warren & Thackray 2018.
  34. ^ CWAS 2018.
  35. ^ Merali 2018.
  36. ^ Breakthrough Prize 2018.
  37. ^ Ghosh 2018.
  38. ^ BBC 2011a.
  39. ^ Franklin Institute.
  40. ^
  41. ^ Walter 1982, p. 438.
  42. ^ AIoP 1978, p. 68.
  43. ^ 1986.
  44. ^ RAS.
  45. ^ Jansky Home Page.
  46. ^ APS 2008.
  47. ^ The Royal Society.
  48. ^ Gold 2006.
  49. ^ QVMAG 2016.
  50. ^ Royal Society.
  51. ^
  52. ^ Institute of Physics 2017.
  53. ^ Académie des sciences 2018.
  54. ^ Ouellette 2018.
  55. ^ Addley 2007.
  56. ^ BBC 1970.
  57. ^ IOP JBB Prize.
  58. ^ Jocelyn Bell Burnell publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database. (subscription required)
  59. ^ Bell Burnell 2004, pp. 426–89.
  60. ^ Allan 2015.
  61. ^ Burnell 1989.
  62. ^ Bakewell 2010.
  63. ^ QPSW Testimonies Committee 2007, p. ?.
  64. ^ Bell Burnell 2013, p. 11.
  65. ^ Condensed Matter Physics Group 2010.

Works cited

Further reading

  • Coroniti, Ferdinand V.; Williams, Gary A. (2006). "Jocelyn Bell Burnell". In Byers, Nina; Williams, Gary (eds.). Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82197-1.

External links




Academic offices
Preceded by
Baron Patel
Chancellor of the University of Dundee
since 2018
Succeeded by
Antony Hewish

Antony Hewish (born 11 May 1924) is a British radio astronomer who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974 (together with fellow radio-astronomer Martin Ryle) for his role in the discovery of pulsars. He was also awarded the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1969.


Burnell is a surname. Notable people with the surname include:

Alf Burnell (born 1924), English rugby league footballer of the 1950s

Arthur Coke Burnell (1840–1882), British translator

Barker Burnell (1798–1843), U.S. Representative from Massachusetts

Cassandra Burnell Southwick (circa 1600–1660), English American Quaker

Charles Burnell (1876–1969), British rower

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943), Northern Irish astrophysicist

Joe Burnell (born 1980), English professional footballer

Paul Burnell (born 1965), Scottish rugby union footballer

Robert Burnell (1239–1292), English bishop

Center for Theoretical Studies, University of Miami

The University of Miami Center for Theoretical Studies was established in 1965 under the direction of Behram Kurşunoğlu, with guidance from J. Robert Oppenheimer and with the support of the University's President Henry King Stanford. The purpose of the Center was to provide a forum for studies in theoretical physics and related fields, to be carried out by short term visitors, postdoctoral researchers, long term members of the Center, and various faculty of the University.

Among others, the long term resident members of the Center included Paul Dirac (1969–1972) and Lars Onsager (1972–1976), while the affiliated faculty included Physics Professors Arnold Perlmutter and Kursunoglu.

Soon after being established, the Center assumed responsibility for the organization of the "Coral Gables Conferences" --- a series of winter scientific meetings on various topics, especially elementary particle physics. These meetings had already begun in January 1964, and continued through December 2003. The original series has now been superseded by the annual Miami physics conferences on elementary particles, astrophysics, and cosmology.From 1969 onwards the Center awarded the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize to recognize physics research. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the 1978 recipient for her discovery of pulsars. Several other recipients of the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (specifically, Sheldon Glashow, Yoichiro Nambu, Frederick Reines, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg). The inaugural recipient, Paul Dirac, was already a Nobel laureate.

The Center was located on the University of Miami's campus in Coral Gables, Florida. It closed in 1992 on the retirement of Kursunoglu and was then officially disestablished although the name was retained by the University for possible future use.

Fred Hoyle Medal and Prize

The Fred Hoyle Medal and Prize was established in 2008 by the Institute of Physics of London for distinguished contributions to astrophysics, gravitational physics or cosmology. The medal is made of silver and accompanied by a prize and a certificate. The medal was awarded biennially from 2008 to 2016. It has been awarded annually since 2017.

Harrie Massey Medal and Prize

The Harrie Massey Medal and Prize is jointly awarded by Institute of Physics (UK) and the Australian Institute of Physics for contributions to physics.

Established in 1988, it is awarded every two years for contributions to physics or its applications made by an Australian physicist working anywhere in the world, or by a non Australian resident in, and for work carried out in, Australia.

Institute of Physics Isaac Newton Medal

The Isaac Newton Medal is a gold medal awarded annually by the Institute of Physics accompanied by a prize of £1,000. The award is given to a physicist, regardless of subject area, background or nationality, for outstanding contributions to physics. The award winner is invited to give a lecture at the Institute.. This medal was recently renamed by IoP as the "International Medal".

Institute of Physics Joseph Thomson Medal and Prize

The Thomson Medal and Prize is an award which has been made biennially in even-numbered years since 2008 by the British Institute of Physics for "distinguished research in atomic (including quantum optics) or molecular physics". It is named after Sir J. J. Thomson and comprises a medal and a prize of £1000.

John Arbuthnott (microbiologist)

Sir John Peebles Arbuthnott, PPRSE, FRCPSG, FMedSci, FRCPath (born 8 April 1939) is a Scottish microbiologist, and was Principal of the University of Strathclyde. He succeeded Lord Wilson of Tillyorn as President of The Royal Society of Edinburgh in October 2011 and was succeeded by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell in October 2014.

Lise Meitner Medal and Prize

The Lise Meitner Medal and Prize was established in 2016 by the Institute of Physics. It is named for Lise Meitner, a pioneer in nuclear fission. The award is for distinguished contributions to public engagement within physics and consists of a silver medal and a prize of £1000.

List of Chancellors of the University of Dublin

This is a list of Chancellors of the University of Dublin, founded in 1592.

List of women astronomers

The following is a list of astronomers, astrophysicists and other notable women who have made contributions to the field of astronomy.

Marie Curie-Sklodowska Medal and Prize

The Marie Curie-Sklodowska Medal and Prize was established in 2016 by the Institute of Physics. It is named for Marie Curie-Sklodowska, a pioneer in the theory of radioactivity, discoverer of radium and polonium, and the only person to have won the Nobel Prize for both chemistry and physics. The award is for distinguished contributions to physics education and to widening participation within it and consists of a silver medal and a prize of £1000.

Maurice Riordan

Maurice Riordan (born 1953) is an Irish poet, translator, and editor.

Born in Lisgoold, County Cork, his poetry collections include: A Word from the Loki (1995), a largely London-based collection which was a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize; Floods (2000) which took a more millennial tone, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award; The Holy Land (2007) which contains a sequence of Idylls or prose poems and returns to Riordan's Irish roots more directly than his earlier work. It received the Michael Hartnett Award.His anthologies include A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science (2000), a collaboration with Jon Turney, an anthology of ecological poems Wild Reckoning (2004) edited with John Burnside, and Dark Matter (2008) edited with astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell. He has also edited a selection of poems by Hart Crane (2008) in Faber's 'Poet to Poet' series.

He has translated the work of Maltese poet Immanuel Mifsud. His collection for children The Moon Has Written You a Poem is adapted from the Portuguese of José Jorge Letria.In 2004 he was selected as one of the Poetry Society's 'Next Generation' poets. He was Poetry Editor of Poetry London from 2005 to 2009 and Editor of The Poetry Review from 2013 to 2017.He has taught at Goldsmiths College and at Imperial College and is Emeritus Professor of Poetry at Sheffield Hallam University. He lives in London.

Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Murray Edwards College is a women-only constituent college of the University of Cambridge. It was founded as "New Hall" in 1954 but, unlike many other colleges, it was founded without a significant endowment and thus did not bear a benefactor's name. This situation changed in 2008 following a donation of £30 million by alumna Ros Edwards (née Smith) and her husband Steve Edwards to secure the future of the College as a college at the University of Cambridge in perpetuity. In recognition of this, New Hall was renamed Murray Edwards College - honouring the first President, Dame Rosemary Murray and the donors.

Nevill Mott Medal and Prize

The Nevill Mott medal and prize is awarded in odd-numbered years by the Institute of Physics. It was first established in 1997 thanks to a donation of Sir Nevill Mott's family. Sir Nevill Mott was one of the outstanding British condensed matter theorists and won a Nobel prize in Physics in 1977. He died in 1996. The award is for distinguished research in condensed matter or materials physics and consists of a silver medal and a prize of £1000.

The Observatory (journal)

The Observatory is a publication, variously described as a journal, a magazine and a review, devoted to astronomy. It appeared regularly starting in 1877, and it is now published every two months. The current editors are David Stickland, Bob Argyle and Steve Fossey.Although it is not published by the Royal Astronomical Society, it publishes the reports of its meetings. Other features are the extensive book reviews and "Here and There", a collection of misprints and ridiculous statements of astronomical interest.

The founder and first editor (1877–82) was William Christie, then chief assistant at the Royal Observatory and later Astronomer Royal. Notable subsequent editors include:

Arthur Eddington (1913–19)

Harold Spencer Jones (1915–23)

Richard van der Riet Woolley (1933–39)

William McCrea (1935–37)

Margaret Burbidge (1948–51)

Antony Hewish (1957–61)

Donald Lynden-Bell (1967–69)

Carole Jordan (1968–73)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1973–76)

Women in physics

This is a list of woman who have made an important contribution to the field of physics.

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