Scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell made one of the most important astrophysics discoveries of the 20th century: the radio pulsar. She made this discovery as a graduate student and earned a Nobel Prize in 1974. Her discovery has formed the basis of a “galactic positioning system” for navigating outside our solar system.
However, Bell Burnell didn’t collect the Nobel and instead, the award went to her supervisor Antony Hewish at the University of Cambridge. Hewish had built the necessary radio telescope with her but didn’t discover the pulsar.
After almost 34 years, Bell Burnell has received the much heftier Breakthrough Prize for the same discovery. She has also been awarded for her scientific leadership in the years since then. In the year 1974, the Nobel committee gave away about $124,000 to the winners (around $620,000 adjusted for inflation). Hewish would have received half of that amount after splitting the prize with another radio astronomer who won the same year.
The Breakthrough Prize comes with a prize of $3 million which makes it the largest scientific award in the world. It is funded by Sergey Brin, Ma Huateng, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.
Bell Burnell has decided that she will give the money away for setting up a scholarship to support women and ethnic minorities who are interested in science.
In an interview she said that she doesn’t need the money herself, and this is perhaps the best use she could put it to. She added that she believes that unconscious bias keeps such groups out of science and the fact of her own status as an outsider at Cambridge helped a lot to make her the universe-unlocking discovery.
Coming back to her discovery, Neutron stars spin rapidly and emit highly regular flashes of electromagnetism. Scientists call this flashing point in their telescope data as a pulsar.
Edward Witten, the chair of the Breakthrough Prize selection committee, said in a statement that Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the greatest surprises in the history of astronomy. Before this no one had any real idea how neutron stars could be observed and if indeed they existed. He praised his contribution by saying that it turned out that nature has provided an incredibly precise way to observe these objects, and this is something that has led to many later advances.
Scoop Cube congratulates Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her contribution to the world of science.