Jocellyn Bell Burnell (Belfast, Irland, 15 July 1943)
Astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who, as a postgraduate student, discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. The discovery eventually earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974; however, she was not one of the prize’s recipients.
The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Bell’s thesis supervisor Antony Hewish was listed first, Bell second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with the astronomer Martin Ryle. At the time fellow astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle criticised Bell’s omission. In 1977, Bell Burnell commented, “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.” She would later state that “the fact that I was a graduate student and a woman, together, demoted my standing in terms of receiving a Nobel prize.” The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in its press release announcing the prize, 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 Burnell was president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010, and 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. Following the announcement of the award, she decided to use the $3 million (£2.3 million) prize money to establish a fund to help female, minority and refugee students become physics researchers. The fund is administered by the Institute of Physics. In 2021, Bell Burnell became the second female recipient (after Dorothy Hodgkin in 1976) of the Copley Medal.