Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (on the right)
Born (1943-07-15) 15 July 1943 (age 81)
Alma materGlasgow (BSc), Cambridge (PhD)
Known forDiscovering the first four pulsars
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society (March 2003)
Scientific career
Doctoral advisorAntony Hewish

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, DBE, FRS, FRAS (born Susan Jocelyn Bell on 15 July 1943), known as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, is a British astrophysicist who, as a postgraduate student, discovered the first radio pulsars with her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, for which Hewish shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Martin Ryle. She is the current president of the Institute of Physics.

The paper announcing the discovery had five authors, Hewish's name being listed first, Bell's second. Dr. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Dr. Ryle, without the inclusion of Bell as a co-recipient, which was controversial, and was roundly condemned by Hewish's fellow astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle.[1] The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in their press release announcing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics[2], cited Ryle and Hewish for their pioneering work in radio-astrophysics, with particular mention of Ryle's work on aperture-synthesis technique, and Hewish's decisive role in the discovery of pulsars. Dr. Iosif Shklovsky, recipient of the 1972 Bruce Medal, had sought out Bell at the 1970 International Astronomical Union's General Assembly, to tell her "Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century."[3]

Background and family life

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where her father was an architect for the nearby Armagh Planetarium,[4] she enjoyed the large library and was encouraged to read. She was especially drawn to the books on astronomy. She attended Lurgan College and lived in Lurgan as a child. She was one of the first girls at this college who was permitted to study science. Previously, the girls' curriculum had included such subjects as cross-stitching and cooking. At age eleven, she failed the 11+ exam and her parents sent her to the Mount School, York, a Quaker girls' boarding school.[5] There she was impressed by a physics teacher, Mr Tillott, who taught her:

"You don't have to learn lots and lots...of facts; you just learn a few key things, and...then you can apply and build and develop from those... He was a really good teacher and showed me, actually, how easy physics was."

Jocelyn Bell married Martin Burnell in 1968, and they have one son, Gavin Burnell, who is also a physicist,[6] born in 1973, and two grandsons.

She has been the subject of the first part of the BBC4 3-part series Beautiful Minds, directed by Jacqui Farnham, in which her career and major contributions to astronomy are highlighted.

Academic career

Composite Optical/X-ray image of the Crab Nebula, showing synchrotron emission in the surrounding pulsar wind nebula, powered by injection of magnetic fields and particles from the central pulsar.

She graduated from the University of Glasgow with a B.Sc. physics in 1965 and completed her Ph.D. from New Hall (since renamed Murray Edwards College) of the University of Cambridge in 1969. At Cambridge, she worked with Hewish and others to construct[7] a radio telescope for using interplanetary scintillation to study quasars, which had recently been discovered (interplanetary scintillation allows compact sources to be distinguished from extended ones). In July 1967, she detected a bit of "scruff" on her chart-recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars. Ms. Bell found that the signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse per second. Temporarily dubbed "Little Green Man 1" (LGM-1) the source (now known as PSR B1919+21) was identified after several years as a rapidly rotating neutron star.

After finishing her Ph.D degree, Dr. Bell Burnell worked at the University of Southampton (1968-73), the University College London (1974-82), and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (1982-91). In addition, from 1973 to 1987, Dr. Bell Burnell was also a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University.[8] In 1991, Dr. Bell Burnell was appointed as a Professor of Physics at the Open University, a position that she held for ten years. She was also a visiting professor at Princeton University in the United States. Before retiring, Dr. Bell Burnell was the Dean of Science at the University of Bath between 2001 and 2004,[9] and she was the President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004. She is currently a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College.[10] Dr. Bell Burnell is the current President of the Institute of Physics.[11]

Non-academic life

Bell is the house patron of Burnell House at Cambridge House Grammar School in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, and sits on the Advisory Board of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She also gained a diploma of FRSM for piano playing.

She has campaigned to improve the status and number of women in professional and academic posts in the fields of physics and astronomy.[12]

Quaker activities and beliefs

From her school days, Bell has been an active Quaker and served as Clerk to the sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting in 1995, 1996 and 1997. She delivered a Swarthmore Lecture under the title Broken for life,[13] at Yearly Meeting in Aberdeen on August 1, 1989, and was the plenary speaker at the U.S. Friends General Conference Gathering in 2000.

Bell revealed her personal religious history and beliefs in an interview with Joan Bakewell in 2006.[14] She served on the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee, which produced Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit in February 2007,[15] and wrote the introductory essay. She was appointed Clerk of the Central Executive Committee of Friends World Committee for Consultation for 2008–12, in August 2007.


Although she didn't share the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics with Hewish for her discovery, she has been honoured by many other organisations:

She has been awarded numerous honorary degrees, for instance, recently:

Bell Burnell also holds awards in the British honours system. In 1999 Bell Burnell received a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) from Queen Elizabeth II. In June 2007 she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).[21]

Further reading


Scientific papers

For additional titles See Reference[8]


  1. ^ Judson, Horace (2003-10-20). "No Nobel Prize for Whining". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-03. ((cite news)): Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  2. ^ 1974 Nobel Physics Prize committee press release
  3. ^ Longair, Malcolm (2006). The Cosmic Century: A History of Astrophysics and Cosmology. Cambridge University Press. p. 196. ISBN 0521474361.
  4. ^ Johnston, Colin (March 2007). "Pulsar Pioneer visits us" (PDF). Astronotes. Armagh Planetarium. pp. 2–3. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  5. ^ At Mount School 1956–61. She is the 2007 President of the Old Scholars' Association.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "...upon entering the faculty, each student was issued a set of tools: a pair of pliers, a pair of long-nose pliers, a wire cutter, and a screwdriver...", said during a public lecture in Montreal during the 40 Years of Pulsars conference, August 14, 2007
  8. ^ a b "Jocelyn Bell Burnell". Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics (CWP). Retrieved 2007-07-07. (biography at UCLA)
  9. ^ University of Bath Press Release, announcing Bell Burnell's retirement
  10. ^ "Queen's Birthday Honours 2007". University of Oxford. 18 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-10.
  11. ^ IoP website>Governance>Council. (accessed 1 May 2008)
  12. ^ Article by Bell Burnell in Science:"So Few Pulsars, So Few Females" 23 April 2004: Vol. 304. no. 5670, p. 489 See also Belfast Telegraph's interview, at this time.
  13. ^ Details of the print version of the lecture are given in the Bibliography
  14. ^ Transcript of interview by Joan Bakewell for the BBC Radio 3 series "Belief" (2 January 2006)
  15. ^ Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit, 2007 ISBN 0-90168959-9
  16. ^ Franklin Institute citation
  17. ^ "Jansky Home Page". Retrieved 2009-05-14.
  18. ^ Official list of Premium winners
  19. ^ Royal Society article about Bell Burnell, with portrait
  20. ^ Honorary degrees awarded at Commencement’s Morning Exercises, Harvard Crimson, June 7, 2007
  21. ^ The Guardian Commentary on the Birthday Honours, 16 June 2007
  22. ^ Press release on dark matter from the Gulbenkian Foundation