Jocelyn Bell Burnell earns £2.3 million prize for pulsar discovery

Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Image: STFC

Fifty years after her recognition of periodic radio pulses that led directly to the discovery of pulsars, Jocelyn Bell Burnell will receive a £2.3 million ($3 million) Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

“Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy,” said Edward Witten, the 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. Suddenly it turned out that nature has provided an incredibly precise way to observe these objects, something that has led to many later advances.”

Working as a graduate student with Anthony Hewish at the University of Cambridge, Bell Burnell was studying data from a new radio telescope when she noticed unexpected, periodic pulses of radio waves. She was able to show they originated in space, not from any earthly source, and in 1974 Hewish and Sir Martin Ryle shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering pulsars.

Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars, the collapsed cores of massive suns blown apart in supernova explosions. With a radius of just 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) or so and masses between 1.5 and 2 times that of the Sun, neutron stars are the densest objects in the visible universe with just slightly less mass than required to form a black hole.

“Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition,” said Yuri Milner a founder of the Breakthrough Prizes. “Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the Universe.”

Past winners of the Special Breakthrough Prize include Stephen Hawking, LIGO researchers who first detected gravitational waves and seven scientists at CERN who played key roles in the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Bell Burnell told the BBC she plans to give away her winnings to fund research by women, under-represented ethnic minorities and refugee students.

“I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it,” she told the BBC.

For the past five decades, Bell Burnell has held astronomy teaching positions at multiple institutions, served as project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, president of the Royal Astronomical Society and was the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

She is currently a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and Chancellor of the University of Dundee.