Eva Ferreira: “Jocelyn Bell is the absent star in the Nobel Prize firmament”

The University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) has appointed an honorary doctor to the professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford Jocelyn Bell (Belfast, 1943). She was the first person to detect radio waves that come from a type of neutron star called pulsars although the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics went to him for this finding his thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish. Many scientists criticized Bell’s omission, creating a great controversy about it, although she has always downplayed it.

The British astrophysicist is the eighth female honorary doctorate from the UPV/EHU since 1982, after Micaela Portilla (1993), Carmen Codoñer (2003), Marilyn Strathern (2011), Carmen Reinhart and Maria Vallet Regi (2013), María Jesús Esteban (2016) and Sonia Livingstone (2017). Following the signing of the appointment act by the rector, Bell planted the traditional tree, in this case a beech tree, on the Paseo de los Honoris Causa on the Bizkaia Campus. Subsequently, the solemn act was held at the Bizkaia Aretoa in Bilbao in which the rector presented him with the title and the laureate cap; and the godmother Ruth Lazcoz, the Book of Science, which on this occasion was A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Husvedt.

The act was chaired by the rector of the university, Eva Ferreira, and was attended by the Deputy Minister for Universities and Research, Adolfo Morais. Ferreira expressed his gratitude to Bell Burnell for three reasons: “first, for his scientific contribution; secondly, for that human quality that is simple and generous, and, thirdly, for his close and fruitful relationship with the University of the Basque Country”. “I remember a phrase by Professor Etxenike, which accurately -and beautifully- summarizes an objective fact that cannot be denied: Jocelyn Bell is the absent star in the firmament of stars that makes up the Nobel Prize”, added the rector.


Jocelyn Bell Burnel is one of the UK’s most influential scientists. As a graduate student, in 1967, he co-discovered the first radio signal from a pulsar, which has allowed testing the theory of stellar evolution. In her intervention, the new honorary doctor thanked the recognition granted by the UPV / EHU. “I very much appreciate,” he said, “the generosity of the university in granting me this wonderful honor. I especially thank those who nominated me and those who promoted the nomination through the processes of the University. Thank you for your hospitality; thank you for your generosity; thanks for all the attention. And above all, thank you for making me part of your community.”

Professor Ruth Lazcoz, in charge of performing the laudatio for Bell Burnell, highlighted that the professor, “Co-discoverer of neutron stars, she had to break down the walls that prevented her from studying physics during her school years (in the 1960s). And perhaps that first battle won was what prompted her to continue in the gap, despite the doubts she had about her worth, sometimes feeling like an impostor, as she herself confesses. The agreement to confer the title of Doctor Honoris Causa to Jocelyn Bell Burnel was taken at the Governing Council of the UPV/EHU held on February 3, 2022. Bell’s appointment, sponsored by Professor Ruth Lazcoz, was promoted by the Faculty of Science and Technology, for their contribution and testimony, along with that of other leading figures in the field of physics, in promoting STEM vocations in general and women in particular.

Throughout his long career, Bell has received numerous awardsincluding the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the world’s most lucrative academic prize, whose £2.3m she donated to help refugee and minority ethnic women become in Physics researchers. Bell is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow at Mansfield College.

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Eva Ferreira: “Jocelyn Bell is the absent star in the Nobel Prize firmament”