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12 women engineers and scientists you must know

Posted: 24 Mar 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:STEM  mothers of innovation  Moore  Tesla  COBOL 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Radio pulsars

Although she was snubbed by the Nobel committee in 1974, Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars for the first time.

She did so as a graduate student while studying under and advised by her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish.

Burnell graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Philosophy in 1965 and obtained a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1969.

At Cambridge, she attended New Hall and worked with Hewish and others to construct a 4acre radio telescope for using interplanetary scintillation to study quasars, which had recently been discovered. On November 28, 1967, Burnell noted that the observed emission from the pulsar was pulses separated by 1.33 seconds, originated from the same location in the sky, and kept to sidereal time.

In looking for explanation of their observation, most astrophysical sources of radiation, like stars, were ruled out because of their short periods of pulsing. Because the pulses followed sidereal time, the cause could not be man-made radio frequency interference. Instrumental effects were also ruled out when they double-checked the observation through a different telescope.

In a 1977 issue of Cosmic Search Magazine, Burnell notes that she and her partner also ruled out alien communications, although they did playfully nicknamed the signal LGM-1 for "little green men." The pulsar was later dubbed CP 1919, and is now known by a number of designators including PSR 1919+21, PSR B1919+21 and PSR J1921+2153.


Jocelyn Bell Burnell observed the first pulsar in 1967.

A paper announcing the Burnell and Hewish discovery had five authors. Hewish's name was listed first, with Burnell's second. With the paper printed, Hewish was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Martin Ryle, without the inclusion of Burnell as a co-recipient.

She may have been glaringly overlooked for the Nobel, but Burnell has since been honoured by many other scientific organisations. She was also appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1999 and was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007.

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