Two years after Jocelyn Bell Burnell arrived for her doctorate program in physics at Cambridge University in 1965, she discovered the first pulsars, celestial objects that are basically rapidly rotating neutron stars. It was a groundbreaking discovery — one that landed her male Ph.D. supervisor a Nobel Prize in 1974.
When Bell Burnell first started her studies, she figured she wasn’t smart enough for Cambridge, and routinely endured whistles and heckling by men in her honors physics classes. Now, four decades later, she is finally being recognized for her research: On Thursday, she snagged a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, a prestigious award that has previously been given to the likes of Stephen Hawking.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, Bell Burnell fought to take science classes since age 12. “The assumption was that the boys would do science and the girls would do cookery and needlework,” she told The Washington Post. “It was such a firm assumption that it wasn’t even discussed, so there was no choice in the matter.”
At Cambridge, when she got engaged, everyone assumed she would drop out of the program. It became difficult to find professors to advise and invest in her, but she continued undeterred. In 1967, she alerted her Ph.D. supervisor, Antony Hewish, to an “unclassifiable squiggle” on the readout from the radio telescope that she had been told to monitor. They jokingly labeled it LGM-1, standing for “Little Green Men.” When Bell Burnell returned to the observatory at 3 a.m., she realized the magnitude of what she had stumbled upon.
“Wading through miles of chart, I discovered two more of the mysterious signals,” she told The Guardian in 2009. “I had, it transpired, discovered the first four examples of an unimagined kind of star — bizarre astral bodies that transmitted radio beams as they spun, which swept through space like the ray of a lighthouse. We called them pulsars.”
It ended up being “one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy,” the Breakthrough Prize committee said in a statement Thursday. “Among many later consequences, it led to several powerful tests of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of the heavy elements in the universe.” But when her discovery gained media attention, it was Hewish who was given the credit, and later awarded with a Nobel Prize for his “decisive role” in the discovery.
Though she was snubbed in favor of an older man, Bell Burnell isn’t bothered too much; now a professor of astronomy at Oxford University, she says she will use the money from the Breakthrough Prize to help create scholarships for physics students from underrepresented backgrounds.
“I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel Prize,” she told The Guardian on Thursday. “If you get a Nobel Prize, you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel Prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”