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Scientist omitted from Nobel Prize finally gets her due

A special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental ...

Posted: Sep 14, 2018 8:58 PM
Updated: Sep 14, 2018 8:58 PM

A special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics has been awarded this month to British astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell for a distinguished research career, including her key role in the 1967 discovery of pulsars.

Bell Burnell's discovery was a very important one in the field of astronomy -- one sufficiently impressive to receive the Nobel Prize, although she was not awarded it. Her Ph.D. thesis adviser received that prize instead -- a sad, but not uncommon, outcome. Bell Burnell is now receiving her due with the prestigious breakthrough prize.

Awards and prizes

Nobel Prize

Physics

Science

Space and astronomy

The Breakthrough Prize is awarded to "recognize an individual(s) who has made profound contributions to human knowledge." Each recipient of the prize receives $3 million, more than twice the financial award associated with the older Nobel Prize.

Although Bell Burnell's Breakthrough Prize was partially awarded for "a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community," she is most known for her crucial contribution to the discovery of pulsars, which are remnants of long-dead stars that emit radio waves in pulses, separated by milliseconds to seconds and detectable on Earth.

These pulses are kind of like the beeping of the alarm that wakes you up in the morning, but with radio waves instead of sound and with a much faster chirp. Pulsars are too distant and too dim to see by eye. But, as Bell Burnell found, their presence is observable through their rhythmic signal, detectable by a suitable radio.

In 1967, as a graduate student at the fabled Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, Bell Burnell helped build a radio telescope that would be used to scan the sky and pick up radio waves. Once the telescope was operational, she began collection data on the signals coming from the sky (printed on literally miles of old-style continuous printer paper), when she observed a faint and repeating signal of radio waves. She had no idea what it was, as nothing of the sort had been discovered before.

After considerable cross-checking of her work, she brought it to the attention of her thesis adviser, British radio astronomer Antony Hewish. While they first interpreted her observation as an unwanted signal from somewhere here on Earth, a more careful study revealed that it was actually of extraterrestrial origin. Given that the signal was so faithfully periodic, they jokingly labeled the radio source as LGM-1 (for "little green men").

However, an announcement of the discovery of extraterrestrial life was not to be. Instead, Bell Burnell had discovered pulsars.

For this discovery, her adviser Hewish shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics with Sir Martin Ryle, who was awarded his portion of the Nobel for a different contribution to radio astronomy.

Much has been written about the fact that Bell Burnell did not share in the Nobel Prize. While there is no question that there are a distressing number of examples of women overlooked for a well-deserved Nobel Prize, it is unclear whether gender played a role in Bell Burnell's omission from the award. She was a young graduate student working with an established scientist. Historically, in science, the leader of a research group gets both the acclaim and blame for the performance of the group, and this is irrespective of the gender of the students they work with.

Even Bell Burnell has said that it is very difficult to separate the contribution of student and supervisor and that it would demean the Nobel Prize if it were awarded to students, except in very exceptional cases. She did not believe that this was one of them.

In many ways, I think she's right. Students are able to conduct their research because they are educated and mentored by their professors and it is thus appropriate that the professor is recognized for their scientific leadership. Still, I would not have objected if she had been recognized by the Swedish Academy for her work. I would include her name with other overlooked female luminaries, like Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Vera Rubin, and others.

However, Nobel Prize aside, Bell Burnell's life after graduate school has been full of accolades and achievements. She has been a professor at a number of institutions and was president of both the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was also made a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her astronomical work, the second highest level recognition of the Order of the British Empire, equivalent to Knight Commander.

Despite the accolades, Bell Burnell has proven that she does what she does not for the prestige or money, but for the sake of science. She has announced that she is donating the entire $3 million dollars to the Institute of Physics to provide scholarships and support to students and scholars from underrepresented groups in science.

The face of cutting edge science is changing, but not quickly. Women were awarded only about 5% of physics bachelor's degrees in 1967, when Bell Burnell made her discovery, but has risen to 20% as of last year. And when one looks more broadly at science, technology, engineering and math over the same time period, the percentage of STEM degrees awarded to women has jumped from about 17% to over 35%. Things are getting better, but there is still room for improvement.

It's nice to see a brilliant career recognized in this way, and even nicer to see such a magnanimous gesture toward future students. By supporting the next generation of scientists, Bell Burnell's legacy will include not only her own discoveries, but future ones as well.

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