Most of us might not be familiar with the name Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She is a famous Astrophysicist who made a path breaking discovery in astronomy and is a known figure among astronomers.
Jocelyn Bell was born on 15th July 1943 in Northern Ireland. Her father was an architect at the Armagh Planetarium, Northern Ireland, which had got her interest in Astronomy. Furthermore, she had found her father’s book about astronomy named Frontiers of Astronomy by Fred Hoyle, a famous astrophysicist. She ultimately chose radio astronomy as her path in life.
She graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Philosophy (physics), with honors, in 1965 and obtained a PhD degree from the University of Cambridge in 1969. She was the only girl in her class, in the University of Glasgow, and was frequently mocked or catcalled by the boys in the same class. But that did not deter her from carrying on with her aspirations. At Cambridge, she had worked with a fellow student, Antony Hewish and others to construct the Interplanetary Scintillation Array just outside Cambridge to study quasars, which had recently been discovered.
On 28 November 1967, she recorded a signal, on the chart papers they had used to record radio signals from outer space, that she was confirmed was not a quasar. But Hewish was convinced that it was a technical mistake. However, she found another signal similar to the first one and Hewish himself saw the chart papers, he, himself was convinced it was not an interference. Hewish took these records to Martin Ryle, under whom they were working, and they discussed these developments without Bell’s knowledge. Hewish gave a colloquium in Cambridge, and Fred Hoyle, himself was there. Hoyle made a conclusion, which later turned out to be correct. These signals were from Pulsating Radio Source, or in short, Pulsar. It was a scientific breakthrough and made news all around the world. They were interviewed about the Pulsars; Hewish was asked questions about Astrophysics while Bell was asked about would be the "human interest" part, her interests in trivial things. She was named the “girl” who found the Little Green Men, as the Pulsars were previously called.
Soon after, she was married to a man named Martin Burnell, and had to go away to another part of the country, leaving her research unfinished. Later, she heard news that Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle were jointly given the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of Pulsars. Fred Hoyle disputed that Bell was denied the award that she had much deserved. Hewish even denied that he had used her work.
“I think the fact that I was a graduate student and a woman, together, demoted my standing in terms of receiving a Nobel Prize. It didn’t bother me. I was actually pleased that Pulsars were considered important enough to rate a Nobel Prize”, Jocelyn Bell had said, in a documentary about her life.
She was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which is known as the ‘Oscars of Science’ in 2018 and many other awards and honours for her efforts. She has worked in many prestigious universities, all her career.
Jocelyn Bell is an inspiration for many people, young and old alike. In a time when women weren’t supported to pursue a career in the STEM field, she was a someone who had inspired a change in at least a few young women.
As someone who is interested in astronomy, myself, and is hoping to pursue a career in this field, her story has uplifted me and motivated me to work hard and achieve my goals. She is, and will continue to be, an inspiration for many people yet to come.