Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovered Radio Pulsars in 1974, But the Credit Went to Her Advisor; In 2018, She Gets Her Due, Winning a $3 Million Physics Prize

Say you made a Nobel-wor­thy sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery and the prize went to your the­sis super­vi­sor instead. How would you take it? Prob­a­bly not as well as Joce­lyn Bell Bur­nell, dis­cov­er­er of the first radio pul­sars, to whom that very thing hap­pened in 1974. “Demar­ca­tion dis­putes between super­vi­sor and stu­dent are always dif­fi­cult, prob­a­bly impos­si­ble to resolve,” she said a few years lat­er. “It is the super­vi­sor who has the final respon­si­bil­i­ty for the suc­cess or fail­ure of the project. We hear of cas­es where a super­vi­sor blames his stu­dent for a fail­ure, but we know that it is large­ly the fault of the super­vi­sor. It seems only fair to me that he should ben­e­fit from the suc­cess­es, too.”

But now, 44 years lat­er, Bell Bur­nel­l’s achieve­ment has brought a dif­fer­ent prize her way: the Spe­cial Break­through Prize in Fun­da­men­tal Physics, to be pre­cise, and the $3 mil­lion that comes with it, all of which she will donate “to fund women, under-rep­re­sent­ed eth­nic minor­i­ty and refugee stu­dents to become physics researchers.” “Like the stars of Hid­den Fig­ures and DNA researcher Ros­alind Franklin, Bell Burnell’s per­son­al sto­ry embod­ies the chal­lenges faced by women in sci­en­tif­ic fields,” write the Wash­ing­ton Post’s Sarah Kaplan and Anto­nia Noori Farzan. “Bell Bur­nell, who was born in North­ern Ire­land in 1943, had to fight to take sci­ence class­es after age 12.”

Reject­ing an expect­ed life of cook­ery and needle­work, Bell Bur­nell “read her father’s astron­o­my books cov­er to cov­er, teach­ing her­self the jar­gon and grap­pling with com­plex con­cepts until she felt she could com­pre­hend the uni­verse. She com­plained to her par­ents, who com­plained to the school, which ulti­mate­ly allowed her to attend lab along with two oth­er girls. At the end of the semes­ter, Bell Bur­nell ranked first in the class.” Still, by the time she arrived at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty for grad­u­ate school, she “was cer­tain some­one had made a mis­take admit­ting her.” Her sub­se­quent work there on one of “the most impor­tant astro­nom­i­cal finds of the 20th cen­tu­ry,” which you can see her talk about in the clip above, should have dis­pelled that notion.

But as Josh Jones wrote here on Open Cul­ture last month, Bell Bur­nell was a vic­tim of the “Matil­da effect,” named for suf­frag­ist and abo­li­tion­ist Matil­da Joslyn Gage, which iden­ti­fies the “denial of recog­ni­tion to women sci­en­tists” seen through­out the his­to­ry of sci­ence. The new gen­er­a­tion of prizes like the Break­through Prize in Fun­da­men­tal Physics, found­ed in 2012 by physi­cist-entre­pre­neur Yuri Mil­ner, have the poten­tial to coun­ter­act the Matil­da effect, but many oth­er Matil­das have yet to be rec­og­nized. “I am not myself upset about it,” as Bell Bur­nell put it in 1977 when asked about her non-recep­tion of the Nobel. “After all, I am in good com­pa­ny, am I not!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

Read the “Don’t Let the Bas­tards Get You Down” Let­ter That Albert Ein­stein Sent to Marie Curie Dur­ing a Time of Per­son­al Cri­sis (1911)

Marie Curie Attend­ed a Secret, Under­ground “Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty” When Women Were Banned from Pol­ish Uni­ver­si­ties

Pop Art Posters Cel­e­brate Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists: Down­load Free Posters of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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