Jocelyn Bell Burnell Returns to PhysCon

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell Returns to PhysCon


Rachel Kaufman, Editor

One of the most famous female astronomers will return to speak at PhysCon for the fourth time. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, known both for her discovery of pulsars in 1967 and her scientific leadership in the decades since, will serve as honorary chair and provide the opening talk as well as scientific context for our other speakers.

Bell Burnell was a graduate student at Cambridge—one of the very few women in the program—searching for quasars when she noticed the “scruff” on the paper charts produced by a new radio telescope. That “scruff” was the first detected pulsar.
Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars, and beyond being interesting in their own right, they have been used to study the “stuff” in space outside of any solar system and indirectly detect gravitational waves.

Many students know what happened after Bell Burnell’s landmark discovery. Bell Burnell’s advisor, Antony Hewish, and another astronomer, Martin Ryle, were nominated for, and subsequently won, the Nobel Prize for their role in pulsar discovery in 1974. Bell Burnell has said that she understands the logic of rewarding supervisors rather than students; she also told this magazine in 2012 that not winning the Nobel meant she was “carried on a great wave of sympathy and a great wave of feminism…. It’s a waste of energy worrying about that kind of thing.”

Afterward, Bell Burnell had a wide-ranging career in astronomy, studying stars in almost every band of the electromagnetic spectrum. She has headed the Royal Astronomical Society and served as the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The accolades are still coming. Earlier this year, she was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, a recognition that comes with a $3 million award. The prize was awarded “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community,” prize organizers said.

Bell Burnell told earlier this year that she plans to spend the $3 million to fund graduate students from underrepresented groups in physics through the Institute of Physics.

“I feel that I made my contribution in part because I felt an outsider,” she told the outlet. “I was one of very few women, and I wasn’t from the southeast of England, the affluent part of the country. So, I think increasing diversity of the workforce actually allows all sorts of things to develop.”

At the Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony in November, she added in a brief speech that “One of the most delightful things is that some people have... been in touch, saying, ‘How can we also contribute and add to this fund?’ So hey, Breakthrough, we might have a breakthrough.”

For more about Bell Burnell’s career, check out “Resolved: Noted Scientist Shares Her Journey” in The SPS Observer, Winter 2012 issue.

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