Jocelyn Bell Burnell to receive prestigious Irish diaspora award

31 Oct 2019

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

One of Ireland’s greatest astrophysicists, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, is to be honoured with a medal presented by President Michael D Higgins in November.

For her role in the discovery of pulsars and influencing much of modern astrophysics, Armagh native Jocelyn Bell Burnell has been named among the recipients of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.

The award, presented by President Michael D Higgins, was created in 2011 as a means of recognising the Irish diaspora and covers those working not only in science and technology, but also art, business, charity work and more.

As a PhD student in the 1960s, Bell Burnell was a pioneer in astrophysics for her exhaustive research into mysterious, regular radio waves being emitted from outer space. While initially thought to be human radio interference, she was able to prove their interstellar origin, leading to the coining of the term ‘pulsar’.

These stars, roughly a fraction of the size of our planet but with masses equivalent to the sun, spin so rapidly that their surfaces move at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Famously, however, her role in the discovery was not recognised for the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics.

An accomplished career

In 2015, she spoke at the first Inspirefest event about her experiences of dealing with sexism in academia and the resulting media that came from her work, which almost always focused on superficial topics rather than the science itself.

“They didn’t know how to handle a young, female scientist. I would have loved to turn a sharp tongue on them but couldn’t,” she said at the time. “I needed good references and support from the powerful people and I can’t afford to say what I think to a journalist.”

Despite these challenges, Bell Burnell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science in 2005 and was president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004.

Last year she was named winner of a special award for fundamental physics worth €2.6m as part of the Breakthrough Prize. She has since used the money to establish a new fund to help more women and minority physics graduates in Ireland and the UK find jobs.

Joining Bell Burnell as a presidential award winner in science and technology will be Dr William Howlett who, since the 1980s, has conducted internationally acclaimed work as a medical researcher in northern Tanzania.

He is particularly noted for his groundbreaking research on the neurological elements of HIV and AIDS and their manifestations in the African context, as well as for his meticulous work with the debilitating neurological disease konzo.

The awards will be presented by Higgins at a ceremony on 21 November.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic