Famous Scientists

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Entering the professional world as a woman has never been easy. It is not because women are inefficient or lack quick learning power, but simply because she is not a man. For ages women have stayed and worked at their homes. Although today things have modernized to a great extent, the world still carries over some of these inferior feelings towards women. Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an exception to these feelings, setting a great example for other women. She is a bright and talented woman in one of the most male-dominated fields, Science. She is a British astrophysicist who is famous for her discovery of the first radio pulsars with her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, for which Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Martin Ryle.

Early life, Education and Career:

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born on July 15, 1943 in Belfast, Northen Island. Her father was an architect for the Armagh Observatory, where Jocelyn spent much time as a child. At a young age she read a number of books on astronomy and her interest in the subject was encouraged by the staff of the Armagh Observatory. She attended Lurgan College and went on to earn a Physics degree at Glasgow University, Scotland in 1965. In 1969 completed her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, where under the supervision of Antony Hewish, she also constructed and operated a 81.5 megahertz radio telescope. She studied interplanetary scintillation of compact radio sources.

In 1967 Bell, while analyzing literally miles of print-outs from the telescope, noted a few unusual signals which she termed as “scruff”. These “bits of scruff” seemed to indicate radio signals too fast and regular to come from quasars. Both Jocelyn and Hewish ruled out orbiting satellites, French television signals, radar, finally even “little green men.” Looking back at some papers in theoretical physics, they determined that these signals must have emerged from rapidly spinning, super-dense, collapsed stars. The media named these as collapsed stars pulsars and published the story.

In 1968, soon after her discovery, Bell married Martin Burnell (divorced 1993). Her husband was a government worker, and his career took them to various parts of England. She worked part-time for many years while raising her son, Gavin Burnell. During that period she began studying almost every wave spectrum in astronomy and gained an extraordinary breadth of experience. She held a junior teaching fellowship from 1970 to 1973 at the University of Southampton where she developed and calibrated a 1-10 million electron volt gamma-ray telescope. She also held research and teaching positions in x-ray astronomy at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in London, and studied infrared astronomy in Edinburgh.

Jocelyn did not share the Nobel Prize awarded to Hewish for the discovery of pulsars, but has received numerous awards for her professional contributions. She was first chosen as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1969 and has served as its Vice President. Among many of her awards she received the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize from the American Astronomical Society in 1987 and the Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1989. She also won the Oppenheimer Prize and The Michelson Medal.

She is currently a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College. Also Jocelyn is the current President of the Institute of Physics.

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