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

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  • 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.)

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