Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The ‘spark’ can be a glint, a glimmer, a vibration within us that ignites a will to achieve and grow. Or it can be something that flickers in the dark matter of our being. For astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, this spark, manifested inwardly and outwardly as her scientific brilliance, allowed her to discover her own kind of spark – flashing neutron stars known as ‘pulsars’.
In the late 1960s, while working on a PhD project at Cambridge, Jocelyn observed radio frequencies emitted by a pulsing star. Her supervisor initially dismissed the findings as flare stars or other radio-waves, but this young post-graduate student continued her investigations, eventually concluding the signals to be unique. Jocelyn’s discovery revolutionised the field of astrophysics by providing the first substantive evidence to Stephen Hawking’s theory of black holes, as well as contributing to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Her work was to receive the first ever Nobel Prize for Physics in the field of astronomy – but the award was not given to Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Instead her male supervisor and male colleague received the award for what was largely her work. It was a decision that caused outrage among many of her fellow scientists. Incredibly, her ‘non-award’ was not a source of discouragement for Jocelyn. She went on to build a tremendous career in astrophysics, and is generally credited with fundamentally challenging what scientists thought about the universe.
Born in 1943, Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a native of Belfast and was immersed in science from an early age. Her father, an architect who worked on the design of the Armagh Planetarium, acted as an early role model and inspiration to Jocelyn in her flaring interest in the scientific world – more specifically, the outer world of astrophysics. She attended a local grammar school, where gender policy at the time was almost to prevent her star from rising. ‘In the first year of secondary school,’ she tells me, ‘the boys were sent to the science lab and the girls to the domestic science room.’ A less determined young woman might have toed the line, but Miss Bell was quick to demonstrate her spark. ‘I tried protesting,’ she says, ‘but the teacher wasn’t hearing it. So I enlisted my parents’ help, told them that evening what had happened, and they hit the roof! They went to see the head teacher the next day.’
Cross-stitching firmly rejected, the twelve-year-old student promptly found herself, and just two other girls, in the ‘boy’s club’. An early setback – Jocelyn quite incredibly failed her ‘eleven-plus’ examination – was soon forgotten as her natural aptitude for science soon saw her topping the class. From there her interest in astrophysics grew as she spent her teens at The Mount School in York, a Quakers girls’ boarding, where her teacher, Mr Tillet, was to recognise and foster her talent. ‘He was quite an old man, coming out of retirement a second time to teach us,’ she recalls. ‘But he was just so good at explaining physics. When he realised I was competent, he let me do extra work on my own, at the back of the class, so I got to sit some scholarship exams.’ And so a mentor’s belief saw Jocelyn follow the path most natural to her, a path that would eventually lead to a reconceptualisation of all that had been held as ‘true’ in the study of physics.
Next came the University of Glasgow, It’s a place I know – having studied nursing in Glasgow many moons ago. It’s a place, I suggest, where a woman reading Physics was far from the norm. ‘In my particular year there weren’t any other girls at all,’ Jocelyn smiles. ‘I was the only one doing Honours Physics, along with forty-nine men…’
Today’s study of science does, by and large, promote gender parity. This was the 1960s, however, and the very sight of an attractive, able woman in the physics lecture hall caused significant uproar. ‘The tradition then was that whenever a woman walked into the lecture hall everybody whistled and catcalled, stamped and banged the desks,’ she recalls. I ask if she felt ostracised. ‘Well, I didn’t like it,’ she responds, ‘I discovered that if you blush, they make more noise, so you must learn to naturally control your blushing. On one level, I didn’t blame my colleagues for doing it, because they were only doing what previous generations of students had taught them to do. But I’m still a bit cross with the academic staff, who took no measures to stop it.’
Undiminished, Jocelyn narrowed her sights on the study of radioastronomy, for which a PhD was required. ‘I ended up at Cambridge,’ she tells me, ‘which wasn’t something I had expected to do. I was really rather over-awed there, feeling quite provincial, surrounded by all these people who seemed so terribly bright. I wasn’t quite sure I was going to make the grade.’
This description calls to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of the power of the underdog, as detailed in his illuminating book, David and Goliath. Here he argues that feeling on the back-foot can provide the fuel to outwit and outclass even the most intimidating of opponents. The underdog will win, he says, providing a fear of failure can be converted into new strategies to succeed. Jocelyn had identified her strategy: she would simply work harder, longer and more assiduously than anyone else. ‘I was quite determined that if they were going to throw me out,’ she tells me, ‘I would have done my very best before that happened.’ Her strategy was not only to secure her place at the college, it was to lay the foundations for something truly spectacular.
And so to the science. At this time, recent theorisations and discoveries in the area of astrophysics were redefining what scientists had believed to be the origins of the universe. Jocelyn began working with her supervisor Anthony Hewish, who, with the help of Martin Ryle, had built a radio telescope to study quasars. Jocelyn interpreted the radio data, logging unusual or extraordinary information, and observed the pulsations during this analysis. This demanded those hard, long hours in the lab, poring over printouts literally miles in length. ‘I was being very thorough and careful,’ she explains. ‘And it’s because I was being very thorough that I noticed this funny, spurious signal. I could have ignored it, but I was wanting to make sure I understood absolutely everything that telescope was picking up.’ The discovery of pulsars, was, she says: ‘an accident, but in one sense it was an accident waiting to happen.’
Further evidence was gathered, and a paper heralding the discovery was drafted for publication in Nature, the renowned scientific journal. When it appeared, Hewish’s name was listed first, and Bell’s second. The scientific community lit up, media interest grew apace and by 1974 the discovery was deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize. Next came the headline: Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Jocelyn’s name was nowhere to be seen.
I try to imagine how it would feel to be responsible for the twentieth-century’s most significant astronomical discovery, a Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough, and to be overlooked. But here’s what’s so inspiring about Jocelyn Bell Burnell: she is almost divinely circumspect on the subject. She has never, as I suspect the majority of us might, bemoaned her exclusion. Moreover, she has never criticised her male colleagues. I wonder if she feels so magnanimous now, almost fifty years on. ‘Oh yes,’ she replies. ‘It was an important precedent, because it was the first time the Prize was going to astronomers. I was really rather proud that it was our stars that convinced them there was good physics in astronomy. And I’ve also discovered that you can do very, very well out of not getting a Nobel Prize!’
It’s a trait common to life’s success stories, this proclivity to accentuate the positive in any situation. Jocelyn’s faith may also have a part to play in her outlook; as a ninth-generation Quaker, she follows teachings of forgiveness, acceptance and equanimity. Her Quaker education might also be credited; her alma mater, Mount School York, follows the proverb: ‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle’. Interestingly, her religion has also informed her approach to science and her teachings on it. She alludes to the oneness of humanity and the universe, saying that the atomical composition of our bodies – what makes up the human being – are related to the same forces and ingredients that comprise the most distant galaxy. We, like the universe, are organic, in Jocelyn’s own words, ‘we are made of the stuff of stars’. Such a quasi-ethereal understanding has inspired both her passion for physics and for the world.
Like stars, however, no human is exempt from the pressures of external forces. For Jocelyn, I’m inclined to imagine her discovery created its own unique pressure: how ever can you best an early incidence of genius? Again, her response comes in coolly circumspect tones. ‘The problem is living up to that,’ she says. ‘And that’s actually impossible, as I fairly quickly realised. The luck to make that kind of discovery is something most people never have. And when you do, you have to realise that you’re not going to have that luck again. That’s just part of life.’
Jocelyn Bell Burnell has lived a life less ordinary. Her pioneering spirit saw her not only follow a path less travelled, but place a landmark upon it. While not in receipt of a Nobel Prize, she has, she tells me ‘won just about every other prize that moves!’ These accolades have included more than ten significant honours, a CBE and DBE among them, and over twenty honorary doctorates. She was the first female president of The Institute of Physics, served as President of The Royal Astronomical Society, and in 2014 became the first woman ever appointed President at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Perhaps most saliently, she is the woman credited with shining a light for other young women to follow, such is her dedication to changing the game of how females in science are perceived. ‘What we’ve got to do is change how society thinks about what’s suitable for young women,’ she says. ‘This varies enormously from country to country…so we can see that the problem is to do with the culture in a particular country and nothing to do with women’s brains or abilities. We’ve got to somehow convince people that science, and engineering for that matter, are perfectly acceptable occupations for women – quite appropriate in fact.’
Jocelyn took adversity and thrived on it, took a knock and turned it into a motivational driver in the creation of a dazzling career. Now in her seventies, I ask if there’s anything left to do; any burning ambition untapped. ‘I’m not sure there is,’ she replies. ‘There are places I want to visit, holidays I want to take … but in terms of my professional career, I have had a ball, I really have.’
As she prepares to return to her day job, I have just one parting shot. If you were writing a letter to your younger self, Jocelyn, back in Cambridge, how would it read? Her response is an exercise in rational thinking.
‘I’d say that it was good that I knew from quite an early age what I wanted to do. Knowing where you want to go is enormously helpful when you meet obstacles. And obstacles aren’t entirely bad things, either, because they help you sort your priorities. Do I really want to do this? Yes, I do. Therefore I’m going to stick out whatever the current phase is, whatever the issue is, so that I get to do what I want to do. It’s as simple as that.’