She has waited decades to receive top recognition for one of the most important discoveries in physics.
But now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has finally been awarded a £2.3million science prize... she’s giving it away.
The leading astrophysicist, a professor at Oxford University, wants the cash to help women and other under-represented students to reach for the stars as researchers. Dame Jocelyn has been awarded the prestigious Breakthrough Prize for her 1967 discovery of radio pulsars. The development was so momentous it scooped the physics Nobel in 1974, but her male collaborators received the award instead.
She was not included in the Nobel prize citation, despite being the first to observe and analyse pulsars – a type of neutron star that emits a beam of radiation.
Despite being overlooked, Dame Jocelyn has never complained about the decision. Now the 75-year-old academic will use her prize money to counter what she describes as the ‘unconscious’ gender bias that she believes still exists in physics research.
‘I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it,’ she said.
The Breakthrough Prize, the most lucrative award in modern science, will be given at a glittering ceremony in the US in November. Previous winners include Stephen Hawking and the scientists behind other groundbreaking discoveries such as the Higgs boson sub-atomic particle.
‘I have to admit I was speechless,’ she said. ‘This had never entered my wildest dreams. I was totally taken aback.’ Dame Jocelyn, who was born in Northern Ireland and went to school in York, was a graduate student at Cambridge when she detected repeated pulses of radio waves through a new radio telescope she was helping to build.
She said she was being ‘really careful, really thorough’ because she felt like an ‘impostor’ at the prestigious university and thought she would be kicked out.
The waves she detected were pulsars – spinning neutron stars that release beams of radio waves that sweep around the heavens.
Described as ‘one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century’, the discovery was nominated for a Nobel – but it went to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, along with astronomer Martin Ryle.
Four decades later she has gained that recognition.
Edward Witten, the chairman of the selection committee for the Breakthrough Prize, said: ‘Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy.’ Professor Dame Julia Higgins, president of the Institute of Physics, said it ‘still stands as one of the most significant discoveries in physics and inspires scientists the world over’.
Dame Jocelyn, a divorced mother of one, said: ‘I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize. 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.’