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!”
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.