She was in utter confusion. She had read the entire 120 meters of data countless times, but, with each reading, her understanding remained unreached. She had not seen anything like it in the past, but, after months of further perusal, an explanation was finally found to make sense of this uncanny discovery, which led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize. However, the award was never given to her. She did not get was she rightfully deserved.

Pursuing her post-doctoral degree at the University of Cambridge, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was in the midst of her studies in radio astronomy as a research assistant under astrophysicists Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle. After working with other research assistants in the two-year endeavor of construing the university’s radio telescope to monitor the activity of celestial objects known as quasars, Bell Burnell was tasked with routinely analyzing data on over 120 meters of chart paper produced by the massive telescope. Her work reviewing the quasar activity proceeded smoothly for several weeks until she suddenly noticed unusual line patterns in the data. The patterns suggested a series of tall radio pulses originating from a radio source too fast and too frequent to be a quasar. Puzzled by this unforeseen irregularity, Bell Burnell consulted Hewish for clarification, and the entire research team worked diligently to find an answer to this difficult inquiry, gradually eliminating potential sources such as orbiting signals, television signals, and even extraterrestrial contact (dubbed “little green men”). Finally, she and the team concluded that these signals came from “some new kind of star,” as she later described; this star was a particular type of neutron star that the media named “pulsar” for its regular emission of radio wave pulses.

Bell Burnell soon gained much attention for her exceptional discovery, and the press was fascinated by this discovery being made by a female scientist. However, in 1974, in spite of her great recognition, the Nobel Prize highlighting this work was awarded to her male supervisors, Hewish and Ryle. Many were outraged by Bell Burnell’s omission as a contributor to the discovery of the pulsar, but, in response to this frustration, she humbly explained that the distinction was appropriately awarded, for she was simply a student under Hewish’s and Ryle’s direction at the time of the discovery. Though this rationality behind her omission is plausible and admirable on her part, it is an undeniable truth that she indeed deserved to receive the Nobel Prize.

As a woman in the field of physics and astronomy, Bell Burnell has made a significant legacy. Since her childhood, she endured obstacles that arose in the path of her academic pursuits, but she managed to persevere and reach her ultimate goals. If she were awarded the Nobel Prize along within Hewish and Ryle, she would have been the third woman in history to receive this honor in the category of physics, thereby increasing the recognition of women in this field. With this increased recognition, subsequent female scholars would have been inspired by the fact that a fellow woman won such a high distinction in such a male-dominated area, leading them to pursue similar feats in the realms of science. Furthermore, Bell Burnell was the first to discover the pulsar; without her findings, Hewish, Ryle, and the rest of the research team may not have ever been notified of this phenomenon, leaving the pulsar to remain an undiscovered mystery in the world of astrology.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell truly deserved the Nobel Prize as much as (if not, more than) her male counterparts in this work that transformed astrophysics and lead to a greater understanding of the universe. Her modest reasoning behind not having received the award is well respected, but Bell Burnell has recognized the inequalities that women have endured in science, especially in her field of study. A strong advocate for equal education for women, she has lectured around the world encouraging the increase of female contribution to the study of physical sciences. In fact, her experience in challenging norms as a female scholar of the twentieth century has led her to speak widely on the subject of women and science, hoping that future generations of women will be inspired to change the male-dominated culture of physical science and receive great honors (such as the Nobel Prize) for their contributions.


Literature Cited:

  1. Allan, Vicky. “Face to Face: Science Star Who Went under the Radar of Nobel Prize Judges.”HeraldScotland, 4 Jan. 2015.
  2. “Jocelyn Bell Burnell.” com, A&E Networks Television, 27 Feb. 2018.
  3. Holloway, Marguerite. “The Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell Looks Back on Her Cosmic Legacy.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 2 Jan. 2018.