From Quakerism to Quasars

From Quakerism to Quasars, this is the extraordinary story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell. 


Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a small, striking woman. The thing about impressive people is they don’t have to work hard to impress you, or at least it doesn’t seem like they work hard to impress people. She is serious looking, tidy and very very clever. Every word is weighed and carefully considered before said. She is, for lack of a better word, a scientist.


 “It was at Cambridge that I accidentally discovered pulsars. It wasn’t part of the project. The project was to find quasars and it did it very well. I got the number of quasars up from 20 to 200. But along the way, I incidentally discovered the first four pulsars.” To a non-physicist, this all sounds very ordinary. All these space physics-y things are much of a muchness, right? Not so, the discovery of radio pulsars is credited with “being one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century” so significant, that Bell’s PhD supervisor won the Nobel Prize in physics. Bell, in spite of being the first to observe these radio pulsars, did not receive the prize. This has since been called “One of the biggest snubs in Nobel Prize history”, given the Nobel committee’s rich history of snubs, it’s quite the claim.  


Bell Burnell’s upbringing was upright, born in 1943, “I grew up near a town called Lurgan, in county Armagh. I grew up out in the countryside- the house was called Solitude. When I was born there were sixteen adults living in the household and me. Six refugees were living us, helping out on the farm. It was a little bit unusual. There were some family members, some friends, the refugees.” This upbringing has stuck with Bell Burnell her entire life. In 2018, she won the “Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics”, an award worth £2.3 million, all of which she gave away to an Institute of Physics’ scholarship fund for women and minority groups, she gave it on the stipulation that the fund would include refugees. “All the money went to the Institute of Physics to set up these scholarships. They’re for people who are underrepresented in physics. So it includes women -who are well underrepresented, people of colour, various nationalities and I added refugees as well.” Physics has long been a discipline enriched by refugees, from Albert Einstein to Lise Meitner. Bell Burnell considers this, “One of the things that struck me when the migrant crisis started was, some of the people who got out first were very highly qualified: paediatricians and things like that. Which is what made me realise that amongst the refugees there may be people who have a first degree in physics and would be capable of doing a PhD. So that’s why I specifically included refugees amongst the list. I think also my childhood must have influenced that.” 


What also must have influenced Bell Burnell’s generous donation was her own difficult path to success.   “When I was in the grammar school in Lurgan, I remember when we went into the senior school aged 12, on the first week of the first term they told the boys to go to such and such and such a place and the girls to another. I thought this was for sport. It wasn’t. They sent the boys to the science lab and the girls to the cookery room. No choice, no discussion.” Luckily for physics, Bell Burnell’s parents objected to this. “My parents were livid because they wanted me to do science as well as me wanting to do science.” The parents of three girls called the school demanding their daughters got to science. Jocelyn Bell Burnell believes they were the first girls in the history of the school to do science. “We did physics that first term and I came top of the class. The teacher did not praise me for coming top of the class, instead, he lambasted all the boys for allowing a girl to beat them.” Bell Burnell, later went on to attend an all girl’s boarding school where she was encouraged by her teacher Mr Tillot to study physics. She attended the University of Glasgow, to do a physics degree. “That was quite tough. In the honours physics class, there were 49 men and me. I was the only girl doing physics. There were some doing the joint physics and maths science degree but I was the only girl in most of my classes. At that time it was the “tradition” that when a woman would enter the lecture hall all the guys whistled, stamped, catcalled  and made as much noise as they could. I had to face that on my own for most of my classes.” 


What intrigued me was her use of the word “incidental”. It manages to make a significant discovery sound blasé. There is nothing blasé about the project. Bell Burnell, spent the first two years of her postgrad building the radio telescope herself and then spent hours pouring over the data the telescope produced.  “It was quite heavy physical work. I was the person who took over when the building was done and made sure the telescope was working properly. I debugged it and used it for the first six months.” Radio pulsars are emitted from neutron stars, which are the collapsed core of giant stars, they happen some of the densest objects in the universe. She noticed repetitive squiggles in the data she was collecting on quasars. Her supervisor and future  Nobel laureate, Anthony Hewish said it had to be man-made radio interference. However, given that it was something moving at the same speed as the stars, Bell Burnell felt it had to be something else. This is how she discovered a totally new kind of object. While she didn’t get the prize, she says “well you can do anything about it. My fellow grad students labelled it the “No-Bell Prize”. Quite a lot of people were annoyed on my behalf. However, it’s been a very rich life.” 


I will leave you with Bell Burnell’s parting words at the UCC event hosted by Epona where she spoke: “I have learnt that hanging in there is important, probably, vital. I’ve been a researcher, a professor, a tutor, a manager,  a Head of Department, a Dean, I’ve done public relations and outreach. I’m still going strong and having a lot of fun. It’s not an orthodox career, but actually having fun is what really matters as long as you’ve got enough money to put bread on the table. I hope for today’s young women it’s easier. Hang in there.”