After Nobel snub, Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins $3m prize for pulsar discovery

6 Sep 2018

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

Jocelyn Bell Burnell has been named the winner of the $3m Breakthrough Prize for her major role in the discovery of pulsars.

Armagh native and former Inspirefest speaker Jocelyn Bell Burnell is highly regarded in the field of astrophysics, and now she is set to take to a Hollywood stage this November as a major scientific award winner.

In an announcement this morning (6 September), the organisers of the Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony said Bell Burnell has been awarded a special prize for fundamental physics, for her discovery of pulsars.

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. The resulting regular radio signals produced by this phenomenon were first dismissed as interference from human radio signals, but Bell Burnell went on to prove their cosmic origin.

The Breakthrough Prize has grown to become one of the most prestigious scientific award ceremonies around, with wealthy backers merging the worlds of advanced science and Hollywood glamour. It is awarded as recognition to some of the world’s leading scientists and the work they have achieved during their lifetime, with former winners including the late Stephen Hawking and the entire LIGO team that first detected gravitational waves.

Speaking of the award, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prize, Yuri Milner, said: “Prof Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition. Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the universe.”

‘I was totally taken aback’

Bell Burnell, meanwhile, speaking with The Guardian, admitted that the award came out of the blue. “I have to admit I was speechless,” she said. “This had never entered my wildest dreams. I was totally taken aback.”

As a PhD student in the 1960s, Bell Burnell worked tirelessly to uncover the origin of the regular radio waves produced. During this time and even after the discovery, she described having to fight through imposter syndrome and being dismissed by her peers.

The award is somewhat of a justification for her missing out on the Nobel Prize in 1974 when her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, ended up sharing the prize with Martin Ryle, despite Hewish originally doubting Bell Burnell’s discovery.

She now plans to donate the $3m award to help students underrepresented in physics boost their presence in an otherwise male-dominated space.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic