July 15th in (Feminist) History

800px-susan_jocelyn_bell_28burnell292c_1967On this day in 1943 was the birth of Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a Northern Irish astrophysicist who was known for discovering the first radio pulsars, though credit– and the Nobel prize– went instead to her (male) mentor and his (male) colleague. She was born in Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and discovered astronomy through the books of her father, who had been one of the architects that designed the Armagh Planetarium. As a girl she was not allowed to study science, until her parents joined others in protesting the school policy to allow girls to take more than just cooking and cross-stitching.

Jocelyn eventually went to the Mount School in York, then graduated from the University of Glasgow with a BS in Natural Philosophy, followed by the University of Cambridge where she earned a Ph.D. in 1969. At Cambridge, she attended New Hall, and began to work with Antony Hewish, helping to build a radio telescope to study quasars using interplanetary scintillation. It was while studying her chart-recorder papers that she noticed some “scruff”, which she eventually figured out was a signal that was pulsing regularly. Essentially, Jocelyn was the first to discover– or at least notice– radio pulsars. The actual object she was listening to would later be identified as a rapidly rotating neutron star (PSR B1919+21).

Though it was Jocelyn who found and analyzed the pulsars, she didn’t get full credit. When the paper was published it was Hewish’s name that was first, and Jocelyn Bell’s second; and when the Nobel Prize was awarded it did not go to her at all. Instead, it went to Hewish and his colleague Martin Ryle– to the exclusion of Jocelyn. Later, Jocelyn would state that Hewish hadn’t even believed the discovery at first, claiming that it was man-made interference rather than pulsars. Regardless, she nobly claimed not to be upset about not having won the prize, stating: “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.”

Dame Bell Burnell has been as active Quaker for much of her life, and has given lectures on the subject, as well as on relating scientific knowledge to the bible and her faith. She was married once and divorced, but has a son who is an Associate Professor in Condensed Matter Physics at the University of Leeds. Jocelyn herself is still alive today and is currently a Fellow of Mansfield College and a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford.


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