In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, then a graduate student at Cambridge University in the radio astronomy department, spotted something strange.
She was part of a team hunting for quasars, bright objects in the sky that were barely understood at that time.
In analyzing radio wave data, Bell Burnell noticed what she called an “unclassifiable squiggle.”
Others might’ve disregarded that — in fact, her adviser, Antony Hewish, initially dismissed it as interference.
But Bell Burnell kept investigating, and soon discovered pulsars, which are among the most significant astronomical finds of the 20th century.
In 1974, Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of pulsars, Bell Burnell’s adviser Hewish was one of the recipients. Bell Burnell was not. No woman has won the Nobel Prize in physics since 1963.
On Thursday, half a century after her pioneering work, it was announced that Bell Burnell will receive a $3 million Breakthrough Prize, one of the most lucrative and prestigious awards in science. The special award in fundamental physics, given for her scientific achievements and “inspiring leadership,” has only been granted three times before.
To Bell Burnell’s admirers, the prize is richly deserved and somewhat overdue.
Like the stars of “Hidden Figures” and DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin, Bell Burnell’s personal story embodies the challenges faced by women in scientific fields. Bell Burnell, who was born in Northern Ireland in 1943, had to fight to take science classes after age 12.
“The assumption was that the boys would do science and the girls would do cookery and needlework,” she said. “It was such a firm assumption that it wasn’t even discussed, so there was no choice in the matter.”
But Bell Burnell would not be denied. She had read her father’s astronomy books cover to cover, teaching herself the jargon and grappling with complex concepts until she felt she could comprehend the universe. She complained to her parents, who complained to the school, which ultimately allowed her to attend lab along with two other girls. At the end of the semester, Bell Burnell ranked first in the class.
By her junior year at the University of Glasgow, she was the only woman enrolled in honors physics. Men would whistle and heckle her when she walked into the lecture hall. Blushing only made them louder, so she trained herself to be stoic.
When she arrived at Cambridge University for graduate school, Bell Burnell was certain someone had made a mistake admitting her. She was one of two women in her graduate program, and Cambridge was far more affluent than anywhere she had lived before. Both factors, she said, probably contributed to her impostor syndrome — doubts about her accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud — “although, of course, we didn’t know that term then.”
Bell Burnell earned her PhD — the pulsar discovery was part of her thesis — and was working at University College London when, in 1974, a colleague came “steaming” into her office. The Nobel Prize for Physics had just been announced, and her name had not been mentioned.
“I think he expected me to be angry,” Bell Burnell recalled. Yet she was delighted. She hadn’t expected to be acknowledged — graduate students rarely were. But this was the first time the physics Nobel had ever been granted to someone studying the stars.
“Finally the committee recognized there was good physics in astronomy,” she said. “I recognized that it was a huge precedent, and I was rather proud that it was my stars that did it.”
Bell Burnell said she harbors no ill will toward the Nobel committee, pointing out that she’s received just about every other honor conceivable: fellow of the Royal Society, president of the Institute of Physics, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. “I get a party almost every year for one thing or another,” she said.
But other researchers see her exclusion as an injustice.
“She helped build the array she used to make the observation. She is the one who noticed it. She is the one who argued it’s a real signal,” said Feryal Özel, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona who studies neutron stars. “When a graduate student takes that kind of lead in her project, it’s hard to play it down.”
Özel noted that only two women have received the Nobel Prize in physics, and none in the past half-century. This despite the fact that women researchers have pioneered the field of nanoscience, established the existence of dark matter, explored strange new kinds of particles and helped to map the universe.
In 2005, Bell Burnell joined fellow female senior scientists to establish the Athena SWAN award, which is given to institutions that take demonstrable and productive action to address gender inequality.In 2011, Britain’s chief medical office announced that medical schools could receive certain government research funding only if they held one of these awards.
Bell Burnell said she was “delighted” to receive the special Breakthrough Prize. But she won’t be keeping any of the award money.
“I don’t need a Porsche or Ferrari,” she said. “I don’t have an affluent lifestyle.”
Instead, the funds will go to creating scholarships for women, underrepresented minorities and refugees who want to study physics. The funds will be administered by Britain’s Institute of Physics.