Jocelyn Bell Burnell Changed Astronomy Forever; Her Ph.D. Advisor Won the Nobel Prize for It

A few years back, we highlighted a series of articles called The Matilda Effect — named for the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose 1893 essay “Woman as an Inventor” inspired historians like Cornell University’s Margaret Rossiter to recover the lost histories of women in science. Those histories are important not only for our understanding of women’s contributions to scientific advancement, but also because they tell us something important about ourselves, whoever we are, as filmmaker Ben Proudfoot suggests in his “Almost Famous” series of short New York Times documentaries.

Proudfoot casts a wide net in the telling, gathering stories of an unknown woman N.B.A. draftee, a would-be first Black astronaut who never got to fly, a man who could have been the “next Colonel Sanders,” and a former member of the Black Eyed Peas who quit before the band hit it big. Not all stories of loss in “Almost Famous” are equally tragic. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story, which she herself tells above, contains more than enough struggle, triumph, and crushing disappointment for a compelling tale.

An astronomer, Bell Burnell was instrumental in the discovery of pulsars — a discovery that changed the field forever. While her Ph.D. advisor Antony Hewish would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974, Bell Burnell’s involvement was virtually ignored, or treated as a novelty. “When the press found out I was a woman,” she said in 2015, “we were bombarded with inquiries. My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest. Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”

In the film, Burnell describes a lifelong struggle against a male-dominated establishment that marginalized her. She also tells a story of supportive Quaker parents who nurtured her will to follow her intellectual passions despite the obstacles. Growing up in Ireland, she says, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. But at that stage, there weren’t any women role models that I knew of.” She comments, with understandable anger, how many people congratulated her on her marriage and said “nothing about making a major astrophysical discovery.”

Many of us have stories to tell about being denied achievements or opportunities through circumstances not of our own making. We often hold those stories close, feeling a sense of failure and frustration, measuring ourselves against those who “made it” and believing we have come up short. We are not alone. There are many who made the effort, and a few who got there first but didn’t get the prize for one unjust reason or another. The lack of official recognition doesn’t invalidate their stories, or ours. Hearing those stories can inspire us to keep doing what we love and to keep pushing through the opposition. See more short “Almost Famous” documentaries in The New York Times series here.

Related Content: 

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

How the Female Scientist Who Discovered the Greenhouse Gas Effect Was Forgotten by History

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Person to Win Twice, and the Only Person in History to Win in Two Different Sciences

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Seth says:

    This article’s author also virtually ignores Bell Burnell’s contributions, describing them only using the weasel word “instrumental” instead of actually bothering to find out exactly what role she played. Journalism has apparently made little progress in the 50 years since.

  • Belkis says:

    I agree absolutely. Readers are left without knowing with some precision what her most relevant achievements are.

  • pete says:

    These pathetic shills and spineless cowards are no longer `journalists`. They are `stenographers`. Paid whores.

  • JW says:

    Watch the video if you haven’t. If I have a daughter she’ll know of Bell Burned. Thank you, Bell!

  • Dim says:

    What is sad is that this article just use the woman to make a clickbait title, tell us that she was asked to unbutton her blouse and don’t explain her contributions… Continuing to treat her as a novelty…

  • Joni Loring says:

    It looks like we need more women journalists.

  • EMattO says:

    This is how STEM graduate work is. Your “advisor” does the majority of the heavy lifting and as such gets most of the credit. I remember when I was finishing my undergrad research in mathematics and a friend of mine was wrapping up their PhD, their work was in a then-pioneering field of optimization related to radiology and the massive improvement of its safety and effectiveness with respect to certain major organ cancers. When it came time to present their research my friend stayed behind and lecture the advisor’s special topics class while he went to Oregon to do the actual presentation for whatever foundation. Whoever wrote this is clearly a journalism major (if that) and has no idea how the sciences work at the highest level. This has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with who was most “instrumental” in the discovery itself, don’t try and take away from either side’s achievements for clickbait when you have no clue what you’re talking about…

  • Jim Pivarski says:

    Not finding them in this article, I went to Wikipedia to learn the details:

    > On 28 November 1967, she detected a “bit of scruff” on her chart-recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars. The signal had been visible in data taken in August, but as the papers had to be checked by hand, it took her three months to find it. She established that the signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse every one and a third seconds. Temporarily dubbed “Little Green Man 1” (LGM-1) the source (now known as PSR B1919+21) was identified after several years as a rapidly rotating neutron star.

    > That Bell did not receive recognition in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics has been a point of controversy ever since. She helped build the Interplanetary Scintillation Array over two years and initially noticed the anomaly, sometimes reviewing as much as 96 feet (29 m) of paper data per night. Bell later said that she had to be persistent in reporting the anomaly in the face of scepticism from Hewish, who was initially insistent that it was due to interference and man-made. She spoke of meetings held by Hewish and Ryle to which she was not invited.

    > In 1977, she commented on the issue: “First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, 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. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not!”

    She had an illustrious career thereafter:

    > Bell Burnell served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, as president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010, and as interim president of the Institute following the death of her successor, Marshall Stoneham, in early 2011.

    > In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Following the announcement of the award, she decided to give the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students seeking to become physics researchers, the funds to be administered by the Institute of Physics. The resulting bursary scheme is to be known as the “Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund”.

    I think I’d agree with her that Nobel prizes shouldn’t be given to young researchers. Look at what happens to most scientists after they get one: they usually struggle with figuring out what to do with themselves afterward, and everyone views them in terms of their past achievements, rather than letting them make something new for themselves. Prestige-wise, it’s the top prize, but it may be counterproductive when your goal is to do novel science.

  • Sophie Downey says:

    You should have written this article instead. Your comment was more informative, and more interesting. :) ( I don’t know if you directly quoted everything from Wikipedia. But even then, you actually bothered to look on Wikipedia.)

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.