Jocelyn bell burnell and the discovery of pulsars

In 1967, astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943–) discovered the first pulsars — cosmic lighthouses that now enable astrophysicists to probe extreme physics and test general relativity.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of PulsarsJocelyn Bell in June 1967Roger W Haworth / CC BY-SA 2.0

“I was about 14 years old when my father brought home an astronomy book from the public library by Fred Hoyle called Frontiers of Astronomy,” recalls Jocelyn Bell Burnell. “It was quite a tough read for a 14-year-old, but I took it up to my room and read it from cover to cover — I was hooked.”

From those humble beginnings, Bell Burnell went on to observe radio waves from pulsars for the first time in history, making one of the most significant astronomical discoveries of the 20th century.

Rising Career

Bell Burnell had her first taste of what a career in astronomy would entail when she went to the Armagh Observatory, just down the road from her family home in Lurgan, Northern Ireland.

She visited multiple times with her father, an architect who designed the Armagh Planetarium.

But although these trips provided a window into one type of astronomy, it was one that Bell Burnell ultimately decided not to pursue: “To be an optical astronomer you have to work at night — and I need my sleep,” she quips.

Instead, when Bell Burnell had completed her Bachelor of Science degree in physics at the University of Glasgow in 1965, she chose to specialize in radio astronomy. The field was only a few decades old and still in its infancy — ripe with the promise of discovery.

Under the guidance of Antony Hewish at the University of Cambridge, she studied quasars, brilliant but unknown sources of radiation visible from across the universe. Now they are known to be gas-guzzling supermassive black holes, but at the time only 20 quasars had been discovered.

 So Bell Burnell set about finding more of them, in order to have a big enough sample to decipher their origin and makeup.

First, though, she had to help build the radio telescope that would detect them. The instrument would consist of copper wires and cables supported by some 2,000 wooden poles. Two years of grueling manual labor later, the Interplanetary Scintillation Array was complete, and she could get down to work.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of PulsarsFour and a half acres strewn with wooden poles and copper wires represented a new kind of radio telescope: the Interplanetary Scintillation Array.Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The First Pulsar

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of PulsarsBell Burnell happened across a 5-mm squiggle in August 1967. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Bell Burnell immediately discovered an abundance of quasars. But then, on August 6, 1967, she noticed an odd squiggly stretch of data occupying about 5 millimeters in the 500 meters of paper readouts. She logged it and moved on. Yet in the days and weeks that followed, the squiggle occasionally reappeared. After a month of observations, she finally saw that the squiggle represented a pulse of radio waves.

Bell Burnell was starting to think she had exposed a cosmic mystery, but when she reported her results to Hewish, she was met with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“His first reaction was that it was manmade,” she recalls. “He came out to the observatory the next day at the appropriate time and saw [it] with his own eyes and began to believe much more that this was not terrestrial — that it was moving with the stars.”

Over the next few weeks, Bell Burnell and Hewish studied the signal in detail, discounting alternative sources such as satellite interference and equipment flaws. During this time, Bell Burnell discovered three more rapidly pulsating radio sources in other parts of the sky.

 She cataloged them with the letters “LGM,” for little green men, although neither she nor Hewish ever genuinely entertained the possibility that the signals came from alien life. “It wasn’t serious” she says.

“You needed a shorthand, as you couldn’t forever be referring to it as ‘that funny pulsing source at 19h 19m, declination 23.’”

But if not little green men, then what was producing these peculiar signals? The first pulsing source, then designated LGM-1 (now known as PSR B1919+21), had a heartbeat that lasted only 0.3 seconds.

Its rapid rise and fall time meant the source had to be small, only a tenth of a light-second across. Also, because the pulse repeated every 1.

337 seconds with extreme regularity, the source had to have great reserves of energy.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of PulsarsIn November 1967, Bell Burnell spotted the radio signal again. The source, the first known pulsar, was ultimately designated PSR B1919+21.Courtesy of Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory

“Originally, we were very puzzled because we were saying it’s small and it’s big,” Bell Burnell explains. “But we soon realized that what we were actually saying is that it’s small in size and big in mass — hence, a neutron star or a white dwarf.”

Together with Hewish and others, Bell Burnell published the results in the February 24, 1968, Nature, tentatively explaining “this strange new class of radio source” as “the stable oscillations of white dwarf or neutron stars.”

In December the same year, a separate team discovered another pulsar in the Crab Nebula, the visible remnant of a supernova explosion that Chinese and Middle Eastern astronomers had witnessed in 1054 AD.

Later, astronomers measured this source to have a pulse period of 0.033 seconds.

Whether rotating, vibrating, or in a binary orbit, white dwarfs simply do not have the density to produce such fast pulse periods.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of Pulsars

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of Pulsars Can You Believe It?

When they were not sure what caused the signals they detected, Jocelyn Bell and her college advisor D. Anthony Hewish labeled the signal LGM for Little Green Men. They thought it could possibly be a beacon from an alien source.

Susan Jocelyn Bell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 15, 1943. Her father was an architect and an avid reader. Through his books, Jocelyn was introduced to the world of astronomy.

Her family and the staff of the Armagh Observatory, which was near her home in Belfast, encouraged her interest in astronomy. Jocelyn Bell's parents very strongly believed in educating women.

When she failed the examination required for students wanting to pursue higher education in British schools, they sent her to a boarding school to continue her education.

In 1965, Jocelyn Bell earned a B.S. degree in physics from the University of Glasgow. Later that same year she began work on her Ph.D. at Cambridge University. It was while she was a graduate student at Cambridge, working under the direction of Antony Hewish, that Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars.

Bell's first two years at Cambridge were spent assisting in the construction of an 81.5-megahertz radio telescope that was to be used to track quasars. The telescope went into operation in 1967. It was Jocelyn Bell's job to operate the telescope and to analyze over 120 meters of chart paper produced by the telescope every four days.

After several weeks of analysis, Bell noticed some unusual markings on the chart paper. These markings were made by a radio source too fast and regular to be a quasar. Although the source's signal took up only about 2.5 centimeters of the 121.8 meters of chart paper, Jocelyn Bell recognized its importance.

She had detected the first evidence of a pulsar.

In February of 1968, news of the discovery made by Jocelyn Bell was published in the journal Nature.

Further studies by groups of astronomers around the world identified the signals as coming from rapidly rotating neutron stars. These objects, first noticed by Jocelyn Bell, became known as pulsars.

The term pulsar is an abbreviation for pulsating radio star or rapidly pulsating radio sources.

Jocelyn Bell received her Ph.D. in radio astronomy from Cambridge University in 1968. She married during that same year and changed her name to Burnell. Since leaving Cambridge in 1968, Dr. Bell Burnell has studied the sky in almost every region of the electromagnetic spectrum. She has received many honors and awards for her contributions to science.

Dr. Bell Burnell came to visit NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in May 1999. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions for StarChild. Hear her responses in her own words:

What are your current research interests?

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What do you think will be the next great discovery in astronomy?

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If you had unlimited funding for astronomy investigation, how would you used the money and why?

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What surprises you most about the universe?

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What words of advice would you give young people?

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Is astronomy a significantly more inviting field today for women?

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Who or what has had the greatest influence on your life?

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What would people be most surprised to find out about you?

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The telescope that Bell Burnell used to discover the first pulsar generated 121.8 meters of data every 4 days. How much information was generated on chart paper in just 1 day? How much was generated in 12 days?
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Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of PulsarsJocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of PulsarsNameJocelyn Bell BurnellBirth DateJuly 15, 1943 (age 76)EducationUniversity of Cambridge, New Hall, University of GlasgowPlace of BirthBelfast, Northern IrelandAKADame Jocelyn Bell BurnellMaiden NameSusan Jocelyn BellFull NameSusan Jocelyn Bell BurnellZodiac SignCancer

  • Who Is Jocelyn Bell Burnell?
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“I'm one of the few women in science. I have pioneered that. One of the things I worry about is what that pioneering has done to me. I have had to fight quite hard most of the way through life.”“The universe is very big—there's about 100,000 million galaxies in the universe so that means an awful lot of stars. And some of them, I'm pretty certain, will have planets, where there was life, is life or maybe will be life. I don't believe we're alone.”“When I got prizes, my husband wasn't really as joyful as I thought he would be and I learned to play it more quietly when I got home having heard I got a prize. The marriage ended when Martin found another younger woman and went with her. It was quite a low time, money was tight. And I was very sad that it had broken up, I still loved him very much. It is, of course, lonelier being a single person.”British astrophysicist, scholar and trailblazer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the space-based phenomena known as pulsars, going on to establish herself as an esteemed leader in her field.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a British astrophysicist and astronomer. As a research assistant, she helped build a large radio telescope and discovered pulsars, providing the first direct evidence for the existence of rapidly spinning neutron stars. In addition to her affiliation with Open University, she has served as dean of science at the University of Bath and president of the Royal Astronomical Society. Bell Burnell has also earned countless awards and honors during her distinguished academic career.

Early Life

Bell Burnell was born Susan Jocelyn Bell on July 15, 1943, in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Her parents were educated Quakers who encouraged their daughter’s early interest in science with books and trips to a nearby observatory.

Despite her appetite for learning, however, Bell Burnell had difficulty in grade school and failed an exam intended to measure her readiness for higher education.

Undeterred, her parents sent her to England to study at a Quaker boarding school, where she quickly distinguished herself in her science classes. Having proven her aptitude for higher learning, Bell Burnell attended the University of Glasgow, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1965.

Little Green Men

In 1965, Bell Burnell began her graduate studies in radio astronomy at Cambridge University.

One of several research assistants and students working under astronomers Antony Hewish, her thesis advisor, and Martin Ryle, over the next two years she helped construct a massive radio telescope designed to monitor quasars.

By 1967, it was operational and Bell Burnell was tasked with analyzing the data it produced. After spending endless hours pouring over the charts, she noticed some anomalies that did not fit with the patterns produced by quasars and called them to Hewish’s attention. 

Over the ensuing months, the team systematically eliminated all possible sources of the radio pulses—which they affectionately labeled Little Green Men, in reference to their potentially artificial origins—until they were able to deduce that they were made by neutron stars, fast-spinning collapsed stars too small to form black holes.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Photo: Roger W Haworth (Flickr)/Wikimedia Commons

Pulsars and Nobel Prize Controversy

Their findings were published in the February 1968 issue of Nature and caused an immediate sensation.

Intrigued as much by the novelty of a woman scientist as by the astronomical significance of the team's discovery, which was labeled pulsars—for pulsating radio stars—the press picked up the story and showered Bell Burnell with attention. That same year, she earned her Ph.D. in radio astronomy from Cambridge University.

However, in 1974, only Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work. Many in the scientific community raised their objections, believing that Bell Burnell had been unfairly snubbed.

However, Bell Burnell humbly rejected the notion, feeling that the prize had been properly awarded given her status as a graduate student, though she has also acknowledged that gender discrimination may have been a contributing factor.

Life on the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Nobel Prize or not, Bell Burnell’s depth of knowledge regarding radio astronomy and the electromagnetic spectrum has earned her a lifetime of respect in the scientific community and an esteemed career in academia.

After receiving her doctorate from Cambridge, she taught and studied gamma ray astronomy at the University of Southampton.

Bell Burnell then spent eight years as a professor at University College London, where she focused on x-ray astronomy. 

During this same time, she began her affiliation with Open University, where she would later work as a professor of physics while studying neurons and binary stars, and also conducted research in infrared astronomy at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. She was the Dean of Science at the University of Bath from 2001 to 2004, and has been a visiting professor at such esteemed institutions as Princeton University and Oxford University.

Array of Honors and Achievements 

In recognition of her achievements, Bell Burnell has received countless awards and honors, including Commander and Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1999 and 2007, respectively; an Oppenheimer prize in 1978; and the 1989 Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, for which she would serve as president from 2002 to 2004. She was president of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010, and has served as president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh since 2014. Bell Burnell also has honorary degrees from an array of universities too numerous to mention.

Personal Life

In 1968, Jocelyn married Martin Burnell, from whom she took her surname, with the two eventually divorcing in 1993. The two have a son, Gavin, who has also become a physicist. 

A documentary on Bell Burnell's life, Northern Star, aired on the BBC in 2007.

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Pulsar Discoverer Jocelyn Bell Burnell Wins $3 Million Breakthrough Prize

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is about to get some much-deserved recognition, and a pretty big chunk of change to boot.

The British astrophysicist will receive a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, Breakthrough Prize representatives announced today (Sept. 6). The $3 million award recognizes not only Bell Burnell's 1967 discovery of the weird, fast-spinning stellar corpses known as pulsars but also her scientific leadership in the 50 years since then.

“Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition,” Breakthrough Prize co-founder Yuri Milner said in a statement today. “Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the universe.” [The Universe: Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy Steps]

A historic discovery

In 1967, Bell Burnell (then Jocelyn Bell) was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in England. One day that November, she noticed something strange in the data collected by a radio telescope she and her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish, had helped build — a pulse that repeated every 1.3 seconds or so.

The signal was so odd that Bell Burnell and her colleagues playfully dubbed it “Little Green Man-1,” after the putative aliens that might have generated it. But Bell Burnell soon spotted other, similar pings, suggesting that the source was a naturally occurring cosmic object. 

Researchers eventually determined that these signals were coming from rapidly rotating neutron stars, the incredibly dense remnants of massive stars that have died in supernova explosions.

These objects came to be known as “pulsars,” a combination of “pulsing” and “quasar.

” (Quasars, incredibly bright galactic nuclei, were the targets of the new radio telescope Bell Burnell and Hewish were using.)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of PulsarsPulsars are fast-spinning and highly magnetized stars. See how they work here. (Image credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics artist)

Pulsars don't actually pulse, however; they emit beams of radiation constantly. The apparent pulsing is an artifact of pulsars' rotation, which brings the beams into line with our planet at regular intervals. 

“Jocelyn Bell Burnell's discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy,” Edward Witten, chairman of the selection committee for the Fundamental Physics Breakthrough Prize, said in the same statement.

“Until that moment, no one had any real idea how neutron stars could be observed, if indeed they existed,” Witten added. “Suddenly, it turned out that nature has provided an incredibly precise way to observe these objects, something that has led to many later advances.”

For example, scientists have used pulsars to test Einstein's theory of general relativity, and the precision of their repeating signals has allowed astronomers to construct detailed maps of the cosmos. 

Hewish won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1974 for his role in the pulsar discovery. He shared the prize that year not with Bell Burnell but rather fellow English radio astronomer Martin Ryle.

Bell Burnell has said she's not upset about being left out, however, stating that she understands the logic of rewarding team leaders and supervisors rather than research students.

[Nobel Prize in Physics: 1901-Present]

50 years of leadership

Bell Burnell is now being recognized for her crucial pulsar work — but not just that. Breakthrough Prize representatives also stressed the importance of Bell Burnell's teaching and leadership contributions.

Over the past five decades, for instance, she has headed the Royal Astronomical Society and served as the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

(Bell Burnell is currently chancellor of the University of Dundee in Scotland, as well as a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford in England.)

And the $3 million will allow her to keep giving back.

“The plan is, broadly, to use the money to fund research students — graduate students, particularly students from underrepresented groups in physics,” Bell Burnell told, adding that she's been formulating that plan with the Institute of Physics, the London-based professional society for people in the field.

“I feel that I made my contribution in part because I felt an outsider,” she added. “I was one of very few women, and I wasn't from the southeast of England, the affluent part of the country. So, I think increasing diversity of the workforce actually allows all sorts of things to develop.”

Bell Burnell also said the award caught her completely off guard. “When I was told about it, I was absolutely speechless, which is most unusual for me,” she said. “It was not something I had ever even faintly dreamt to imagine I might get, so it was a wonderful surprise.”

Bell Burnell will officially receive the award on Nov. 4, during the 2019 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in California's Silicon Valley. Laureates of the organization's annual prizes in physics, life sciences and mathematics will also be honored at the ceremony, as will winners of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

Bell Burnell will become just the fourth recipient of the “special” physics prize, which can be awarded at any time for extraordinary achievement.

The others to be so honored are Stephen Hawking; seven scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (known by its French acronym, CERN) who were crucial to the discovery of the Higgs boson; and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Collaboration, which in 2015 made the first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Returns to PhysCon

One of the most famous female astronomers will return to speak at PhysCon for the fourth time.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, known both for her discovery of pulsars in 1967 and her scientific leadership in the decades since, will serve as honorary chair and provide the opening talk as well as scientific context for our other speakers.

Bell Burnell was a graduate student at Cambridge—one of the very few women in the program—searching for quasars when she noticed the “scruff” on the paper charts produced by a new radio telescope. That “scruff” was the first detected pulsar.

Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars, and beyond being interesting in their own right, they have been used to study the “stuff” in space outside of any solar system and indirectly detect gravitational waves.

Many students know what happened after Bell Burnell’s landmark discovery. Bell Burnell’s advisor, Antony Hewish, and another astronomer, Martin Ryle, were nominated for, and subsequently won, the Nobel Prize for their role in pulsar discovery in 1974.

Bell Burnell has said that she understands the logic of rewarding supervisors rather than students; she also told this magazine in 2012 that not winning the Nobel meant she was “carried on a great wave of sympathy and a great wave of feminism….

It’s a waste of energy worrying about that kind of thing.”

Afterward, Bell Burnell had a wide-ranging career in astronomy, studying stars in almost every band of the electromagnetic spectrum. She has headed the Royal Astronomical Society and served as the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The accolades are still coming. Earlier this year, she was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, a recognition that comes with a $3 million award. The prize was awarded “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community,” prize organizers said.

Bell Burnell told earlier this year that she plans to spend the $3 million to fund graduate students from underrepresented groups in physics through the Institute of Physics.

“I feel that I made my contribution in part because I felt an outsider,” she told the outlet. “I was one of very few women, and I wasn’t from the southeast of England, the affluent part of the country. So, I think increasing diversity of the workforce actually allows all sorts of things to develop.”

At the Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony in November, she added in a brief speech that “One of the most delightful things is that some people have… been in touch, saying, ‘How can we also contribute and add to this fund?’ So hey, Breakthrough, we might have a breakthrough.”

For more about Bell Burnell’s career, check out “Resolved: Noted Scientist Shares Her Journey” in The SPS Observer, Winter 2012 issue.

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Q&A: Pulsar pioneer Jocelyn Bell Burnell

As a graduate student in the 1960s, using the radio telescope she helped build, calibrate, and debug, Jocelyn Bell Burnell spotted the signal and performed the data analysis that led to the discovery of radio pulsars. In 1974 Antony Hewish, who had been her thesis adviser at Cambridge University, received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in the discovery.

Her exclusion from that prize is widely seen as one of the biggest Nobel snubs; some of her contemporaries called it the No-Bell prize. She, however, says she doesn’t hold a grudge against the Nobel committee. Last year, a half century after her first publication on pulsars, she was honored with the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

She is donating the $3 million that came with it.

Credit: Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

Over the course of her career, Bell Burnell worked at several universities, was a project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, and served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and then the Institute of Physics. She is now a visiting professor at Oxford University.

PT: How did you get into science?

BELL BURNELL: I nearly didn’t get to do science. At my school in Northern Ireland, girls were expected to do needlework and cookery. My parents had promised me I’d get to do science, so I was a bit miffed when the girls were shunted over to the domestic science room. This was at about age 12.

I tried protesting, but the teacher wasn’t hearing me. So I told my parents that evening. They were furious and phoned the head teacher, as apparently did the parents of two other girls. The next time the science class met, there were three girls and all the boys.

PT: What attracted you to astronomy?

BELL BURNELL: I was clearly good at physics, pretty good at chemistry, and not interested in biology—which may say something about the teachers and what they were teaching us.

So it was ultimately a question of “What kind of physicist am I going to be? What am I going to specialize in?” I read some astronomy books from the public library and decided I would be an astronomer.

This was at about age 15.

PT: How did you end up in radio astronomy?


Meet the Woman Who Found the Most Useful Stars in the Universe

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Pulsars—whirling stellar corpses that send beams of radio waves across the cosmos—are today’s astrophysical Swiss army knives.

With them, scientists can test some of the most fundamental theories in physics, detect gravitational waves, navigate the cosmic ocean, and maybe even communicate with aliens.

But if it weren’t for the work of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars in 1967 while still a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, these distant stellar lighthouses may not have become such powerful celestial tools.

Now, 51 years after she first noticed an odd bit of “scruff” in her observations, Bell Burnell has been awarded a $3-million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. The prize committee not only cites her “detection of radio signals from rapidly spinning, super-dense neutron stars” but also her “lifetime of inspiring scientific leadership.”

Bell Burnell has spent her career working to lift up women and minorities in science. Need proof? She’s donating that $3 million to a charity in the U.K. whose mission is to support physics graduate students from under-represented groups.

“Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition,” Breakthrough Prize founder Yuri Milner says in a statement. “Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the Universe.”

Scattered throughout the galaxy, pulsars are exotic objects that represent physics at its most extreme. So, how did Bell Burnell find them, and how are they used today? We’ve got you covered.

In 1967, Bell Burnell was working with Anthony Hewish, an astronomer at Cambridge who wanted to find more quasars, which are the distant, extremely bright cores of massive galaxies. To do that, Hewish was scanning the sky and looking for radio waves produced by those quasars. But to really succeed, he needed a new radio telescope.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Pulsars and understanding the universe

In physics there are few female scientists more inspirational and influential than Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a visiting professor of astrophysics at Oxford University.

Her greatest discovery happened in 1967 when she was a postgraduate student at Cambridge University.

Using a radio telescope she had helped to build, Jocelyn became the first person to discover pulsars — rotating neutron stars that appear to ‘pulse’ since the beam of light they emit can only be seen when it faces the Earth.

The discovery led to a Nobel Prize for her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, and is considered one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. Since then Jocelyn has gone on to accomplish a number of other remarkable milestones.

She became the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and helped set up the Athena Swan program to advance female participation in science.

Last year her work was honoured with one of the world's most prestigious physics prizes – the $A4.3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

She joined a very select group of physicists to receive the prize, including Stephen Hawking.

She was appointed to Dame Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to astronomy in 1999, followed by a Dame Commander Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.

This event was held on Tuesday 16 July, 2019 at the University of Sydney.

The Professor Walter Stibbs Lectureship commemorates the achievements of Professor Stibbs through an annual lecture by a distinguished astronomer of international standing. The Walter Stibbs Lecture is supported by a gift from the Stibbs family and sponsored by the Sydney Institute for Astronomy. Jocelyn's visit was also supported by the Physics Foundation.

Fifty years ago Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars and changed our view of the universe

A pulsar is a small, spinning star – a giant ball of neutrons, left behind after a normal star has died in a fiery explosion.

With a diameter of only 30 km, the star spins up to hundreds of times a second, while sending out a beam of radio waves (and sometimes other radiation, such as X-rays). When the beam is pointed in our direction and into our telescopes, we see a pulse.

2017 marks 50 years since pulsars were discovered. In that time, we have found more than 2,600 pulsars (mostly in the Milky Way), and used them to hunt for low-frequency gravitational waves, to determine the structure of our galaxy and to test the general theory of relativity.

Read more: At last, we've found gravitational waves from a collapsing pair of neutron stars

What is a pulsar?

The discovery

In mid-1967, when thousands of people were enjoying the summer of love, a young PhD student at the University of Cambridge in the UK was helping to build a telescope.

It was a poles-and-wires affair – what astronomers call a “dipole array”. It covered a bit less than two hectares, the area of 57 tennis courts.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first pulsar. CC BY-SA

By July it was built. The student, Jocelyn Bell (now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell), became responsible for running it and analysing the data it churned out. The data came in the form of pen-on-paper chart records, more than 30 metres of them each day. Bell analysed them by eye.

What she found – a little bit of “scruff” on the chart records – has gone down in history.

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