Jocelyn Bell Burnell Wins $3 Million Breakthrough Prize for Discovering Pulsars

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

Accomplished astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell has won a $3 million (£2.3 million) Special Breakthrough Prize for her discovery of pulsars 50 years ago and continued leadership in science.

Bell Burnell has lived an accomplished life. Though best known for her discovery, she has become a leader in the field, serving in many top positions at well-known scientific organisations. She will use the prize money to begin a fund for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Diversity is very important,” Bell Burnell told Nature. “This also recognises that I did my most important work as a student.”

Bell Burnell was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge reviewing observations from the Interplanetary Scintillation Array at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory when she noticed a strange radio signal. She calculated that it varied regularly with a 1.34-second period. Though first chalked up to “little green men,” scientists have since determined that Bell Burnell had discovered the pulsar, a rapidly-spinning neutron star sending out a beam of radiation like a lighthouse.

The pulsar discovery earned the 1974 Nobel Prize, not for Bell Burnell, but for her advisor Antony Hewish who designed the discovery tool and whose name appeared first on the paper (Bell Burnell’s was second), as well as the observatory’s founding director, Martin Ryle. Scientists widely considered the oversight a snub. Bell Burnell has since commented that she did not think the prize should be awarded to graduate students except for “exceptional cases,” and Bell Burnell did “not believe this is one of them.”

Today, her discovery is widely considered one of the most important and exceptional in the history of astronomy. Pulsars now serve as vital astronomical tools for timekeeping, determining distances to map the universe, and measuring gravity. They were used to indirectly discover gravitational waves in 1974. We write about them a lot.

The Special Breakthrough award mentions not only her pulsar discovery but her lifetime of leadership. Bell Burnell served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society, president of the Institute of Physics, and the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of the sciences.

The Breakthrough Prize, whose sponsors include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and billionaire Yuri Milner, is a $3 million prize awarded annually in December to scientists in the Life Sciences, Physics and Mathematics. However, the selection committee can award a Special Breakthrough prize whenever they’d like. These special prizes need not be awarded for recent discoveries, as in Bell Burnell’s case.

Physicists across the world feel the prize is well-deserved. Flatiron Institute Physicist Chiara Mingarelli tweeted that “she deserves every penny,” and Columbia astronomer David Kipping said that pulsars are “truly one of the most amazing discoveries in astronomy.”

Bell Burnell told the BBC said she did not need the prize money, and hoped that the scholarship fund would counter “unconscious bias” in physics research. People of colour are largely underrepresented in the physics community. Women make up a fifth of the undergraduate physics majors, and have less than 5 per cent of the professor positions.

So, congratulations to Jocelyn Bell Burnell—she deserves it.