How Jocelyn Bell Burnell became the True Superhero of Pulsars

It is remarkable that the career of Jocelyn Bell Burnell has not yet been made into a movie; this True Superhero’s quiet but persistent battle against sexist prejudice has all the hallmarks of a work of fiction, right down to the triumphant conclusion. Jocelyn’s dogged determination to succeed in a world that refused to acknowledge her work has inspired new generations of female scientists to follow in her footsteps, down a path that has been made considerably wider by Bell Burnell’s trailblazing efforts and generous support. She may have been overlooked for the most prestigious prize in science, but she’s now reaping far greater benefits in recognition of her achievements, and sharing those rewards to help lift up other women.

An education in sexism

Jocelyn was born in 1943 in Armagh, Northern Ireland, and from an early age she was exposed to the wonders of the cosmos. Her father worked as an architect at the Armagh Observatory, responsible for maintaining the original observatory building and also designing the new Planetarium at the site. Sadly, young Jocelyn received no encouragement to study the stars at school, where she and the other girls were directed toward cookery and sewing classes, while the boys attended lessons in the science laboratories. Jocelyn’s father banded together with other parents who had greater ambitions for their daughters and she became one of just three girls who were permitted to study the sciences alongside the boys.

How Jocelyn Bell Burnell became the True Superhero of Pulsars

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It is remarkable that the career of Jocelyn Bell Burnell has not yet been made into a movie; this True Superhero’s quiet but persistent battle against sexist prejudice has all the hallmarks of a work of fiction, right down to the triumphant conclusion. Jocelyn’s dogged determination to succeed in a world that refused to acknowledge her work has inspired new generations of female scientists to follow in her footsteps, down a path that has been made considerably wider by Bell Burnell’s trailblazing efforts and generous support. She may have been overlooked for the most prestigious prize in science, but she’s now reaping far greater benefits in recognition of her achievements, and sharing those rewards to help lift up other women.

An education in sexism

Jocelyn was born in 1943 in Armagh, Northern Ireland, and from an early age she was exposed to the wonders of the cosmos. Her father worked as an architect at the Armagh Observatory, responsible for maintaining the original observatory building and also designing the new Planetarium at the site. Sadly, young Jocelyn received no encouragement to study the stars at school, where she and the other girls were directed toward cookery and sewing classes, while the boys attended lessons in the science laboratories. Jocelyn’s father banded together with other parents who had greater ambitions for their daughters and she became one of just three girls who were permitted to study the sciences alongside the boys.

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This pattern continued through college, but the sexism grew worse. She moved to Glasgow to study for a BSc in Physics where she was the only woman on the course, and would later describe how whenever she - or any other female - entered a lecture theater the other students would all stamp their feet and wolf-whistle, which was considered to be a traditional practice in the university at that time. Bell was undeterred, and graduated with honors in 1965; she then moved to Cambridge to study for a PhD in the emerging discipline of radio astronomy.  

Spotting the smudge

Radio astronomy was new, but it was not glamorous. The first two years of Bell Burnell’s PhD were spent in a muddy field constructing the radio telescope, swinging a sledgehammer to drive stake posts into the ground, and then arranging wires and antennae between them. All told, the team created 2,000 interlinked antennae in a space the size of 57 tennis courts connected by 120 miles of wiring. It was these wires that were Jocelyn’s main responsibility during the construction phase, and to her enormous relief the telescope worked perfectly the first time it was switched on, but this only led to her working day becoming even more arduous. This grid of aerials spewed out 100 feet of graph paper every day and Jocelyn’s new role was to study and interpret these interminable printouts. 

How Jocelyn Bell Burnell became the True Superhero of Pulsars
Jocelyn inspecting her unusual telescope

The team was looking for quasars: distant galaxies that emit enormous amounts of light and radiation, which we now know are caused by supermassive black holes at the center of these galaxies. Theoreticians had posited the existence of quasars in the 1920s, and this had been confirmed in the early 1960s with the discovery of 3C 273, in the constellation of Virgo. By the time Jocelyn arrived at Cambridge there were many teams of radio astronomers around the globe successfully engaged in quasar hunting, and there were plenty to find; we now know of over 750,000 quasars and Jocelyn found evidence of many fresh examples etched in the red lines of her telescope’s readouts. She also discovered plenty of radio interference caused by man-made objects, but in August 1967 she spotted something else among all this signal and noise, something that she was unable to explain and would later describe as “a small smudge” in the data occupying a mere quarter-inch of the 100-foot long chart. Although small, Jocelyn was sure that, whatever it was, it was not a quasar and not man-made. To make matters more complicated, it also appeared inconsistently, only showing up in one particular area of the sky in every five to 10 readings, so it took a few weeks for Jocelyn to confirm that it was not a passing anomaly but a consistent source of radio emissions emanating from a fixed position in the sky. Armed with her evidence, she finally took the data to her supervisor, Antony Hewish.

How Jocelyn Bell Burnell became the True Superhero of Pulsars
The original reading of the first known pulsar

Hewish was skeptical, but proposed that they accelerate the printer paper when reading that section of the sky in order to elongate the output and increase the visibility of the data. There then followed a month where there was no sign of the anomaly, and Hewish dismissed the findings as either man-made interference or a fleeting astronomical event such as a flare star. Bell Burnell persisted until finally she was able to catch the anomaly again and now had a clear and much more detailed reading of the radio signal. 

The no-Bell Nobel

What she had found was remarkable; a string of equally spaced pulses oscillating at regular intervals and at a frequency which indicated that it was no more than one and a third light seconds across. This meant it was far too small to be a quasar, and led Hewish to become even more certain that this was a man-made phenomenon, not a stellar body. Typically undeterred, Jocelyn continued to test the signals and finally established that the signal seemed to be coming from roughly 200 light years away, and as such was extremely unlikely to be man-made. The source was also even smaller than they originally thought but also pulsing regularly and rapidly, which meant it must have had enormous reserves of energy. 

Nobody could initially explain the results: as Jocelyn would later say, “At the time we couldn’t get our heads around it.” We now know that Jocelyn had identified the first known pulsar, the result of a massive star collapsing in a supernova and leaving behind an extremely dense  neutron star that rotates rapidly, while emitting beams of radiation from its magnetic poles. These are only visible to earthbound astronomers when the poles are pointing in our direction, hence the impression that the star is pulsing. Soon after, Bell Burnell discovered a second pulsar, and two more in quick succession in the coming months; this was more than enough confirmation to publish her findings, and soon the global scientific community was on the hunt for more of these remarkable stellar objects. 

An image combining x-ray and infrared data showing pulsar PSR B1509-58. in the Circinus constellation

Pulsars were big news, but the media’s reaction to Jocelyn was extraordinarily sexist. As she later put it, they would only ask her, “‘How tall was I? Hips, chest and waist measurements please…’ They did not know what to do with a young female scientist.” Bell Burnell later told the BBC that she had wanted to respond with similar rudeness, but, “I was a PhD student. I hadn’t finished my PhD. I was dependent on senior colleagues for references. I wasn’t in a position to offend the press because the lab needed the publicity.” The lab got plenty of publicity a few years later when, in 1974, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded not to Bell Burnell, but to Hewish. At the time Jocelyn was philosophical about this decision, but has later admitted this was largely because causing a fuss would have been futile. “I think at that time science was perceived as being done by men, senior men, maybe with a whole fleet of minions under him who did his bidding and weren’t expected to think … I believe the Nobel committee didn’t even know I existed.”

An inspirational pioneer

Anthony Hewish did not see a problem with the decision. When asked if he felt it was fair that he received the award and not Bell, he replied: “My analogy is… when you plan a ship of discovery and somebody up the masthead says “land ho!”, that’s great, but who actually inspired it and conceived it? There is a difference between skipper and crew.” It is perhaps ironic that Hewish chose to cast himself in the role of pioneer, given the influence Bell Burnell has had on women in the scientific world. That influence only continues to grow, and she has since received countless other awards for her research, including the Special Breakthrough Prize in 2018. Jocelyn has chosen to donate the $3m award for that prize “to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers”, and more generally she is a vocal - and highly effective - advocate for greater inclusion in the sciences, as well as a totemic figure to younger women seeking to emulate her feats. 

How Jocelyn Bell Burnell became the True Superhero of Pulsars
Accepting the Special Breakthrough Prize in 2018

Very few people these days doubt her credentials as either a scientist or a pioneer, and Jocelyn herself is quietly assertive about her own Superheroic qualities; when asked whether she agreed with a former colleague who described her as meek, she gave a response that was anything but: “She is made of steel. She wouldn’t be here if she weren’t, she’d have melted long ago!”

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