Pulsar discoverer Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins $3M Breakthrough Prize
British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell missed out on a share of the Nobel Prize for her part in the discovery of the first radio pulsars in 1967, but now she has a $3 million Breakthrough Prize all to herself.
Bell Burnell’s selection for the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was announced today, and she’ll receive the award during a Nov. 4 ceremony that will also honor winners of the annual prizes in physics, life sciences and math.
Organizers of the Breakthrough Prize program said the award serves to recognize Bell Burnell’s “fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community,”
The 75-year-old astronomer follows in the footsteps of earlier recipients of speclal physics prizes: the late British physicist Stephen Hawking; seven CERN scientists who led the effort to discover the Higgs boson; and the team behind the Nobel-winning detection of gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The Breakthrough Prize was created in 2012 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner, with support from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki and Tencent CEO Ma Huateng.
“Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition,” Milner said today in a news release. “Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the universe.”
Bell Burnell made her breakthrough discovery during her time as a graduate student at Cambridge University, working with Professor Antony Hewish. While taking data with a new radio telescope that she helped build, Bell Burnell spotted an unexpected pattern of radio pulses, and determined that the signal pattern originated in deep space.
Hewish followed up on the signals at Bell Burnell’s insistence. They and other astrophysicists eventually determined that the radio pulses came from a rapidly rotating neutron star.
“Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy,” said Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study and chair of the Breakthrough Prize selection committee.
“Until that moment, no one had any real idea how neutron stars could be observed, if indeed they existed,” Witten explained. “Suddenly it turned out that nature has provided an incredibly precise way to observe these objects, something that has led to many later advances.”
But it was Hewish who ended up sharing the 1974 Nobel Physics Prize with fellow British astronomer Martin Ryle. Bell Burnell was overlooked.
In a 1977 speech, Bell Burnell said she had no hard feelings. “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,” she said.
As the years went on, the clockwork-like behavior of pulsars helped scientists test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and gather the first observational evidence for gravitational waves.
Meanwhile, Bell Burnell went on to influential posts in astronomy and education, including stints as project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and as president of Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society. She was the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Bell Burnell is currently a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and chancellor of the University of Dundee. She is justifiably called Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, by virtue of being awarded the rank of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007 for her service to astronomy.
In an interview with Nature, Bell Burnell said she was “totally surprised” to learn she had won the $3 million special prize.
Nature reported that she’s talking with the Institute of Physics about using the prize money to support graduate students from underrepresented groups in science.
“Diversity is very important,” she told Nature. “Ths also recognizes that I did my most important work as a student.”