Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS FRSE FRAS FInstP (/bɜːrˈnɛl/; born 15 July 1943) is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who, as a postgraduate student, discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967.[9] She was credited with "one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century".[10] The discovery was recognised by the award of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, but although she was the first to observe the pulsars,[11] Bell was not one of the recipients of the prize.[12]

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Launch of IYA 2009, Paris - Grygar, Bell Burnell cropped.jpg
Bell Burnell in 2009
Susan Jocelyn Bell

(1943-07-15) 15 July 1943 (age 77)[1]
Lurgan, Northern Ireland[2]
Alma mater
Known forCo-discovering the first four pulsars[3]
Martin Burnell
(m. 1968; div. 1993)
ChildrenGavin Burnell
Scientific career
ThesisThe Measurement of radio source diameters using a diffraction method (1968)
Doctoral advisorAntony Hewish[4][5][6]
  • Fred Hoyle Frontiers of Astronomy (1955)
  • Henry Tillott[7] (her school physics teacher)

The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Bell's thesis supervisor Antony Hewish[5][6] was listed first, Bell second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with the astronomer Martin Ryle. Many prominent astronomers criticised Bell's omission,[13] including Sir Fred Hoyle.[14][15] In 1977, Bell Burnell played down this controversy, saying, "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."[16] The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in its press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics,[17] 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 served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, as president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010, and as 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 give the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students seeking to become physics researchers, the funds to be administered by the Institute of Physics.[18][19] The resulting bursary scheme is to be known as the "Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund".[20][21]

Education and early lifeEdit

Jocelyn Bell, June 1967

Jocelyn Bell was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, to M. Allison and G. Philip Bell.[2][1] Her father was an architect who had helped design the Armagh Planetarium,[22] and during visits she was encouraged by the staff to pursue astronomy professionally.[23] Young Jocelyn also discovered her father's books on astronomy.

She grew up in Lurgan and attended the Preparatory Department[a] of Lurgan College from 1948 to 1956,[2] where she, like the other girls, was not permitted to study science until her parents (and others) protested against the school's policy. Previously, the girls' curriculum had included such subjects as cooking and cross-stitching rather than science.[25]

She failed the eleven-plus exam and her parents sent her to The Mount School,[1] a Quaker girls' boarding school in York, England. There she was favourably impressed by her physics teacher, Mr Tillott, and stated:

You do not have to learn lots and lots ... of facts; you just learn a few key things, and ... then you can apply and build and develop from those ... He was a really good teacher and showed me, actually, how easy physics was.[26]

Bell Burnell was the subject of the first part of the BBC Four three-part series Beautiful Minds, directed by Jacqui Farnham.[27]

Career and researchEdit

Chart on which Burnell first recognised evidence of a pulsar, exhibited at Cambridge University Library
Composite Optical/X-ray image of the Crab Nebula, showing synchrotron emission in the surrounding pulsar wind nebula, powered by injection of magnetic fields and particles from the central pulsar

She graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Philosophy (physics), with honours, in 1965 and obtained a PhD degree from the University of Cambridge in 1969. At Cambridge, she attended New Hall, Cambridge, and worked with Hewish and others to construct[b] the Interplanetary Scintillation Array just outside Cambridge to study quasars, which had recently been discovered.[c]

On 28 November 1967, she detected a "bit of scruff" on her chart-recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars. The signal had been visible in data taken in August, but as the papers had to be checked by hand, it took her three months to find it.[28] She established that the signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse every one and a third seconds. Temporarily dubbed "Little Green Man 1" (LGM-1) the source (now known as PSR B1919+21) was identified after several years as a rapidly rotating neutron star. This was later documented by the BBC Horizon series.[29] In a 2020 lecture at Harvard, she related how the media was covering the discovery pulsars, with interviews taking a standard 'disgusting' format: Hewish would be asked on the astrophysics, and she would be the 'human interest' part, asked about vital statistics, how many boyfriends she had, what colour is her hair, and asked to undo some buttons for the photographs.[30] The Daily Telegraph science reporter shortened 'pulsating radio source' to pulsar.[30]

She worked at the University of Southampton between 1968 and 1973, University College London from 1974 to 82 and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (1982–91). From 1973 to 1987 she was a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University.[31] In 1986, she became the project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.[32] She was Professor of Physics at the Open University from 1991 to 2001. She was also a visiting professor at Princeton University in the United States and Dean of Science at the University of Bath (2001–04),[33] and President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004.

Bell Burnell is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Mansfield College.[34] She was President of the Institute of Physics between 2008 and 2010.[35] In February 2018 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee.[36] In 2018, Bell Burnell visited Parkes, NSW, to deliver the keynote John Bolton lecture at the Central West Astronomical Society (CWAS) AstroFest event.[37][38]

In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth three million dollars (£2.3 million), for her discovery of radio pulsars.[39] The Special Prize, in contrast to the regular annual prize, is not restricted to recent discoveries.[40] She donated all of the money "to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers",[41] the funds to be administered by the Institute of Physics.[19]

Nobel Prize controversyEdit

That Bell did not receive recognition in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics has been a point of controversy ever since. She helped build the Interplanetary Scintillation Array over two years[8] and initially noticed the anomaly, sometimes reviewing as much as 96 feet (29 m) of paper data per night. Bell later said that she had to be persistent in reporting the anomaly in the face of scepticism from Hewish, who was initially insistent that it was due to interference and man-made. She spoke of meetings held by Hewish and Ryle to which she was not invited.[42] In 1977, she commented on the issue:

First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, 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. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not![16]




Her publications[66] include:

  • Burnell, S. Jocelyn (1989). Broken for Life. Swarthmore Lecture. London: Quaker Home Service. ISBN 978-0-85245-222-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Riordan, Maurice; Burnell, S. Jocelyn (27 October 2008). Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. ISBN 978-1-903080-10-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Personal and non-academic lifeEdit

Bell Burnell is house patron of Burnell House at Cambridge House Grammar School in Ballymena. She has campaigned to improve the status and number of women in professional and academic posts in the fields of physics and astronomy.[67][68]

Quaker activities and beliefsEdit

From her school days, she has been an active Quaker and served as Clerk to the sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting in 1995, 1996 and 1997. She delivered a Swarthmore Lecture under the title Broken for Life,[69] at Yearly Meeting in Aberdeen on 1 August 1989, and was the plenary speaker at the US Friends General Conference Gathering in 2000.[citation needed] She spoke of her personal religious history and beliefs in an interview with Joan Bakewell in 2006.[70]

Bell Burnell served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee, which produced Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit in February 2007.[71] In 2013 she gave a James Backhouse Lecture which was published in a book entitled A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious?, in which Burnell reflects about how cosmological knowledge can be related to what the Bible, Quakerism or Christian faith states.[72]


In 1968, soon after her discovery, Bell married Martin Burnell; the couple divorced in 1993 after separating in 1989. Her husband was a local government officer, and his career took them to various parts of Britain. She worked part-time for many years while raising her son, Gavin Burnell, who is a member of the condensed matter physics group at the University of Leeds.[73]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The Preparatory Department of Lurgan College closed in 2004,[24] the college becoming a selective grammar school for ages 14–19.
  2. ^ "... upon entering the faculty, each student was issued a set of tools: a pair of pliers, a pair of long-nose pliers, a wire cutter, and a screwdriver...", said during a public lecture in Montreal during the 40 Years of Pulsars conference, 14 August 2007
  3. ^ Interplanetary scintillation allows compact sources to be distinguished from extended ones.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d Who's Who 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Lurgan Mail 2007.
  3. ^ Bell Burnell 2007, pp. 579–581.
  4. ^ Bell 1968.
  5. ^ a b Hewish et al. 1968, p. 709.
  6. ^ a b Pilkington et al. 1968, p. 126.
  7. ^ AIP 2000.
  8. ^ a b The Life Scientific 2011.
  9. ^ Cosmic Search Vol. 1.
  10. ^ a b BBC Scotland 2014.
  11. ^ Hargittai 2003, p. 240.
  12. ^ Tesh & Wade 2017, pp. 31–33.
  13. ^ Westly 2008.
  14. ^ Judson 2003.
  15. ^ McKie 2010.
  16. ^ a b NYAS 1977.
  17. ^ 1974.
  18. ^ Sample 2018.
  19. ^ a b Kaplan & Farzan 2018.
  20. ^ Ghosh 2019.
  21. ^ IoP 2019.
  22. ^ Johnston 2007, pp. 2–3.
  23. ^ Bertsch McGrayne 1998.
  24. ^ Lurgan College history.
  25. ^ Kaufman 2016.
  26. ^ Interview at NRAO 1995.
  27. ^ BBC 2011b.
  28. ^ Schilling 2017.
  29. ^ BBC 2010.
  30. ^ a b Bell Burnell 2020.
  31. ^ Jocelyn Bell Burnell profile.
  32. ^ Notable Women 1997.
  33. ^ University of Bath 2004.
  34. ^ UoO 2007.
  35. ^ Institute of Physics: Council.
  36. ^ Univ of Dundee 2018.
  37. ^ Warren & Thackray 2018.
  38. ^ CWAS 2018.
  39. ^ Merali 2018.
  40. ^ Breakthrough Prize 2018.
  41. ^ Ghosh 2018.
  42. ^ BBC 2011a.
  43. ^ Franklin Institute.
  44. ^
  45. ^ Walter 1982, p. 438.
  46. ^ AIoP 1978, p. 68.
  47. ^ 1986.
  48. ^ RAS.
  49. ^ Jansky Home Page.
  50. ^ APS 2008.
  51. ^ The Royal Society.
  52. ^ Gold 2006.
  53. ^ QVMAG 2016.
  54. ^ Bell Burnell 2013a.
  55. ^ TU Wien 2013.
  56. ^ Royal Society.
  57. ^
  58. ^ Institute of Physics 2017.
  59. ^ Académie des sciences 2018.
  60. ^ Ouellette 2018.
  61. ^ Bell Burnell 2019.
  62. ^ Addley 2007.
  63. ^ BBC 1970.
  64. ^ IOP JBB Prize.
  65. ^ Shearing 2020.
  66. ^ Jocelyn Bell Burnell publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database. (subscription required)
  67. ^ Bell Burnell 2004, pp. 426–89.
  68. ^ Allan 2015.
  69. ^ Burnell 1989.
  70. ^ Bakewell 2010.
  71. ^ QPSW Testimonies Committee 2007, p. ?.
  72. ^ Bell Burnell 2013b, p. 11.
  73. ^ Condensed Matter Physics Group 2010.

Works citedEdit

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit




Academic offices
Preceded by
Baron Patel
Chancellor of the University of Dundee
since 2018
Succeeded by