Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July 15: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, DBE, FRS, FRAS
July 15, 1943

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, DBE, FRS, FRAS, known as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, is a British astrophysicist who, as a postgraduate student, discovered the first radio pulsars with her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, for which Hewish was awarded a Nobel Prize.

The paper announcing the discovery had five authors, Hewish's name being listed first, Bell's second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Martin Ryle, without the inclusion of Bell as a co-recipient, which was controversial, and was roundly condemned by Hewish's fellow astronomer Fred Hoyle. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in their press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, cited Ryle and Hewish for their pioneering work in radio-astrophysics, with particular mention of Ryle's work on aperture-synthesis technique, and Hewish's decisive role in the discovery of pulsars. Iosif Shklovsky, recipient of the 1972 Bruce Medal, had sought out Bell at the 1970 IAU General Assembly, to tell her:
"Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century."
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where her father was an architect for the nearby Armagh Planetarium, she enjoyed a large library and was encouraged to read. She was especially drawn to the books on astronomy. She attended Lurgan College and lived in Lurgan as a child. She was one of the first girls at the college permitted to study science. Previously, the girls' curriculum had included cross-stitch and cookery. At eleven, she failed the 11+ exam and her parents sent her to the Mount School, York, a Quaker girls' boarding school. There she was impressed by a physics teacher who taught her:
"You don't have to learn lots and lots...of facts; you just learn a few key things, and...then you can apply and build and develop from those... He was a really good teacher and showed me, actually, how easy physics was."
She graduated from the University of Glasgow with a B.Sc. physics in 1965 and received her Ph.D. from New Hall (renamed Murray Edwards College) of the University of Cambridge in 1969. At Cambridge, she worked with Hewish and others to construct a radio telescope for using interplanetary scintillation to study quasars, which had recently been discovered (interplanetary scintillation allows compact sources to be distinguished from extended ones). In July 1967, detecting a bit of "scruff" on her chart recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars, Bell Burnell found that the signal was regularly pulsing, about once each second. Temporarily dubbed "Little Green Man 1" the source (now known as PSR B1919+21) was eventually identified as a rapidly rotating neutron star.

After finishing her PhD, Bell Burnell worked at the University of Southampton (1968-73), University College London (1974-82) and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (1982-91). In addition, from 1973 to 1987 she was also a tutor, consultant, examiner and lecturer for the Open University. In 1991 she was appointed Professor of Physics at the Open University, a position she held for ten years. She was also a visiting professor at Princeton University. Before retiring Bell Burnell was Dean of Science at the University of Bath between 2001 and 2004, and was President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004. She is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College. She is the current President of the Institute of Physics.

Although she didn't share the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics with Hewish for her discovery, she has been honoured by many other organisations:
  • Michelson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1973, jointly with Hewish).
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize from the Center for Theoretical Studies in Miami (1978).
  • Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize of the American Astronomical Society (1987).
  • Herschel Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1989).
  • Karl G. Jansky Lectureship of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory(1995).
  • Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society (2000).
  • Fellow of the Royal Society (March 2003).
She has been awarded numerous honorary degrees, for instance, recently:
  • In 2007 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University.
  • On 23 June 2007, Bell Burnell was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Durham.
  • She also holds important awards in the British honours system. In 1999 Bell Burnell received a CBE from Queen Elizabeth II. In June 2007 she was awarded a DBE (equivalent to a male knighthood).

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