Jocelyn Bell Burnell awarded world’s oldest scientific prize

25 Aug 2021

Jocelyn Bell Burnell speaking on stage at Inspirefest 2015. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Bell Burnell said she hopes her ‘work and presence as a senior woman in science’ would continue to encourage more women in the scientific fields.

Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the 2021 recipient of the Copley Medal, the world’s oldest scientific award. This is the second time in the history of the Royal Society medal that it has been awarded to a woman, with Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin winning in 1976.

The award includes £25,000. Bell Burnell will add this money to the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, which provides grants to graduate students in underrepresented groups in physics.

Bell Burnell is most recognised for her work on the discovery of pulsars, one of the major astronomical advances of the 20th century. These stars are only a fraction of the size of the Earth but have masses equivalent to that of the sun.

Her central role in this discovery was not recognised at the time, however, and the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was instead granted to her PhD supervisor.

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

“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.”

Bell Burnell gave the final address at Silicon Republic’s Inspirefest event in 2015, where she spoke about the difficulties that young women scientists encountered in the 20th century.

“It was tradition in the university that when a woman entered the lecture theatre, all the guys would whistle, stamp and cat-call and make as much noise as they could. I had to face that on my own for two years,” she recalled.

The enormous contributions of the scientist have been increasingly recognised in recent years, with the Copley medal being her latest prize. She also received the Irish Diaspora award in 2019 and the $3m Breakthrough Prize in 2018.

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news