Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Pulsar

In the 1960s, This Student Changed Our View of the Universe With Her Thrilling Discovery.

The discovery of the first radio pulsar in the 1960s was regarded as one of the most incredible discoveries of the century. But little do people know that the primary discoverer of this astronomical beauty was a young postgraduate student, Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose contribution was sidelined behind some known names. So today, let’s have a sneak peek into the brilliant lady’s life and how she went on to discover the first-ever radio pulsar.

In the 1960s, This Student Changed Our View of the Universe With Her Thrilling Discovery. 2
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Image Courtesy: The Royal Society)


Jocelyn was born in 1943 in Northern Ireland to M. Allison and G. Philip Bell. Jocelyn’s father was an architect who helped design the Armagh Planetarium. While accompanying her father during his visits to the Planetarium, Jocelyn always found herself getting amused by the beauty of the cosmos and was often encouraged by the staff members to professionally take up astronomy.  

As a known fact, the schools at that time didn’t allow girls to study science. However, Jocelyn’s parents always supported her vision and even protested against its policy. Dame failed her eleven-plus exam in the foregoing, and her parents decided to send her to The Mount School, a boarding school in York. There she got extremely impressed by her physics teacher, Mr. Tillott, and this was when Jocelyn’s passion for physics got ignited in the true sense.

Standing by her passion for physics, Bell graduated with an honors degree in physics from the University of Glasgow in 1965. After that, she joined a Ph.D. program at the University of Cambridge. While being a Ph.D. student at Cambridge, Bell got to make the most beautiful discovery of her life, the first radio pulsar.

So how was the first radio pulsar discovered by Jocelyn Burnell?

During her Ph.D., Bell was working with her supervisor Antony Hewish to regularly make radio observations of the universe. They were doing so by analyzing the observations made by a vast radio telescope designed by Hewish. The telescope was built to measure the random brightness flickers of new kind of celestial objects called quasars.

Well, the word QUASARS (an abbreviation for quasi-stellar radio sources) represents the brightest and most distant known celestial objects. These form in regions of the universe where the large-scale density of matter is much higher than average” and can emit energies of millions, billions, or even trillions of electron volts, which makes them some of the most luminous and energetic objects in the entire universe.

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Now, Burnell’s job was to operate the telescope employed to detect quasars and carefully analyze its data output. Burnell’s data to analyze by hand amounted to 96-feet of chart paper every day. As a part of her work,  Burnell observed the fluctuation in the emission of radio signals from a compact radio source as was chosen by Hewish. 

Chart on which Burnell first recognised evidence of a pulsar (Image : wikipedia)
Chart on which Burnell first recognized evidence of a pulsar

However, one day while analyzing the telescope’s output, Jocelyn saw something strange. She witnessed some unexpected markings on the chart recorded approximately every 1.33 seconds. After carefully examining the charts for three months, Jocelyn established that the signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse every one and a third seconds. The source of this signal, which was temporarily dubbed as “Little Green Man 1” (LGM-1), was later identified as a rapidly rotating neutron star.

Schematic view of a pulsar. The curves indicate the magnetic field lines, the protruding cones represent the emission beams and the green line represents the axis on which the star rotates. (Image: wikipedia)
Schematic view of a pulsar. The curves indicate the magnetic field lines, the protruding cones represent the emission beams, and the green line represents the axis on which the star rotates.

So while looking for the quasars, Bell had actually found a radio pulsar. In simple words, a pulsar is a rapidly rotating neutron star known to emit pulses of radiation at very regular intervals that typically range from milliseconds to seconds. The research paper that announced this unexpected discovery of the first pulsar was submitted to the journal Nature on January 3, 1968. The paper got published in February the same year with five authors, including Hewish and Burnell, as the first and second authors. In the paper, they described their observations as a “strange new class of radio source” and proposed that the unknown source could either be a white dwarf or a neutron star.

The Nobel Prize controversy:

In 1974, the Nobel Prize committee recognized this discovery, and a Nobel was awarded to Antony Hewish along with the astronomer Martin Ryle. However, despite being the first person to discover the pulsars, Jocelyn’s name was nowhere in the awardees’ list. Bell’s omission for the Nobel was criticized by various highly acclaimed individuals, including Sir Fred Hoyle. However, Bell settled down the controversy by saying that, “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.”

Over the years, Jocelyn Bell Burnell has held many prestigious positions. She served as the Royal Astronomical Society president from 2002 to 2004 and later served as the president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010. In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. However, Bell decided to give the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students who seek to become physics researchers.

Joselyn Bell Burnell in 2009 (Image: wikipedia)
Joselyn Bell Burnell in 2009

Jocelyn’s discovery of the first-ever pulsar opened new doors of opportunities for solving numerous mysteries of the cosmos. Pulsars have now turned out to be among the most useful tools in an astronomer’s toolbox. Pulsars behave as natural cosmic clocks, which proves to be instrumental in testing the theories of gravity to detect gravitational waves. Little did Burnell knew that her discovery would one day bring out a revolution in different areas of exploration!

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