The Physics Genius who Donated Millions to Diversity

Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovered Radio Pulsars and Was the Unsung Hero in a 1974 Nobel Winning Discovery

17.09.2018 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo by ... on BBC Radio 4
Photo by ... on BBC Radio 4

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist and member of the Royal Society, has been awarded the Special Prize for Breakthrough in Fundamental Physics for her work on radio pulsars. Professor Burnell has donated the prize money of $3.3 million to budding female scientists and scientists from minority backgrounds.

Prof Bell Burnell’s story has been both an inspiration and motivation for many female scientists. As a research student when pulsars were discovered, she was not included in the Nobel prize citation – despite having been the first to observe and analyse the astronomical objects (a type of neutron star that emits a beam of radiation).

She was passed over for the Nobel Prize in 1974 when the prize was first awarded for the discovery of the pulsars. Burnell was a research student at Cambridge and despite having observed the pulsars first and having crunched the data relating to the observation, she wasn’t mentioned in the discovery team – a move that attracted criticism from the British scientific community at the time.

“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”
– Proffessor Burnell

The former president of the Institute of Physics (IOP) believes that it was because she was from a minority group herself that she had the fresh ideas required to make her discovery as a young student at Cambridge University more than 50 years ago.

“I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I was both female but also from the north-west of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English. So I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.”
– Proffesor Burnell

The funding coming from Professor Burnell’s prize will be given out in the form of a scholarship. The fine details of the scholarship, however, have yet to be decided. In addition to women and under-represented ethnic minorities, refugee applicants will also be eligible for a slice of the funding.

There is quite a big disparity in the physics world in terms of male and female scientists and the disparity also manifests itself in the number of female Nobel Prize awardees. Professor Burnell feels that her work in the field of astrophysics will encourage more women to take up physics at university.

Bell Burnell also pointed out that most Nobels go to scientists and researchers who have spent quite some time in the field and are well established in their respective disciplines. Most women drop out of the scientific profession before they even reach that stage.

“I think in part that’s to do with the age profile of the women that there are in the subject at the moment. Nobel Prizes rarely go to young people; they more often go to established people and it’s at that level that there are fewer women in physics”
– Professor Burnell

Given her own experience, Bell Burnell’s decision on how to spend her latest winnings follows a clear logic. The money will be handed to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics. The prize is backed by Silicon Valley moguls including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Yuri Milner, a former physicist who became a billionaire from investments in tech firms.

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"I'd say go for it if you're at all interested. I think physics is immense fun... and if you don't want to continue in it forever you're very well equipped to do all sorts of things afterwards"

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