Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- )
Lurgan, Northern Ireland
Digital Illustration, 24" x 32", 2022
In 1967, a female graduate student discovered a series of small squiggles on her chart-recorder after tracking the night sky with a telescope. These small marks tapping to a beat eventually translated to small pulses coming from rotating compact stars emitting an abundance of light and energy. Those small beats were the first detection of pulsars, or chunks of dead sun that floated off after huge supernova explosions. That graduate student was Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a 22 year-old woman conducting her research at Cambridge University. Her research eventually led to a significant discovery in astrophysics; the first radio pulsars.
Her advisor, Antony Hewish, claimed the small marks were interference and therefore insignificant. Instead of speaking up, Burnell silently focused on her squiggles. Eventually she was able to justify her findings to Hewish. Hewish than took her work and continued the research with his group of 13 male graduate students. A year later, after Burnell earned her Ph.D., Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974. There was no mention of Burnell’s name.
Burnell continued her work as an astrophysicist while also fulfilling the joy of being a mother. She received backlash from her colleagues who diminished her role first for being married and then as a working mother. Finding she was not the only women treated this way, Burnell went to work for an institution that promoted gender equality. Today she is a visiting professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, a Fellow at Mansfield College, and has held many important university positions across the United States.