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Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal for discovery of pulsars at University of Cambridge

It was on November 28, 1967, while studying printouts from her experiments in Cambridge on quasars that research assistant Susan Jocelyn Bell came across something unexpected in the data.

A signal pulsing with every one and a third seconds could be detected from the four-acre radio telescope she had helped to construct in the countryside outside Cambridge.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Picture: University of Cambridge / Youtube (50699643)
Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Picture: University of Cambridge / Youtube (50699643)

As the hunt for the source of these pulses began, it was referred to as LGM-1 for ‘Little Green Man 1’ - a reference to the outside chance that it represented an attempt by extraterrestrials to make contact.

It took several years for the true source to be uncovered: a rapidly rotating neutron star.

Also known as pulsars, these are the remains of stars that have run out of fuel at their core and collapsed in on themselves - generally in some style, with a huge explosion known as a supernova.

They are the densest known objects - NASA says on Earth a sugar cube-sized piece of a neutron star would weigh about the same as Mount Everest, as they typically pack the mass of the Sun into an object about 20km (12.5 miles) across. Pulsars swing a beam of radio waves around the sky, a bit like a lighthouse shines a rotating beam of light.

Bell, who was attending New Hall - now Murray Edwards College - and working at the Cavendish Laboratory at the time of the discovery, found a second pulsar about a month later.

She went on to achieve her PhD in 1969 but controversially missed out on the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of pulsars, which was awarded to her adviser Antony Hewish and fellow Cambridge astronomer Martin Ryle. One contemporary dubbed it the No-Bell Prize.

She later said: “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 also told how the media at the time had asked her supervisor the astrophysics questions and quizzed her on how many boyfriends she had had.

“Women were not expected to be anything other than sex objects, wives, mothers, housewives. We weren’t expected to have any brain. We weren’t expected to have any career. Getting married was the goal. I was quite convinced I wasn’t clever enough to be in Cambridge,” she recalled.

Now Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has become only the second woman to be awarded the Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal, the world’s oldest scientific prize.

Illustration of a neutron star pulsing and shining in a middle of a galaxy with rests of interstellar dust (50699713)
Illustration of a neutron star pulsing and shining in a middle of a galaxy with rests of interstellar dust (50699713)

She is one of 12 former and current Cambridge researchers, including six women, to be recognised in 2021 for their exceptional research and outstanding contributions to science.

Dame Jocelyn, now a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford, follows in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in earning the medal.

She said: “I am delighted to be the recipient of this year’s Copley Medal, a prize which has been awarded to so many incredible scientists.

“With many more women having successful careers in science, and gaining recognition for their transformational work, I hope there will be many more female Copley winners in the near future.

“My career has not fitted a conventional – male – pattern. Being the first person to identify pulsars would be the highlight of any career; but I have also swung sledgehammers and built radio telescopes; set up a successful group of my own studying binary stars; and was the first female president of the Institute of Physics and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

“I hope that my work and presence as a senior woman in science continues to encourage more women to pursue scientific careers”.

The award comes with a £25,000 gift, which Dame Jocelyn will add to the Institute of Physics’ Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, which provides grants to graduate students from under-represented groups in physics.

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