Jocelyn Bell: how she discovered pulsars, was stolen her Nobel and triumphed to tell the tale

Jocelyn bell Burnell discovered pulsars (neutron stars) in 1967, when he was doing his doctorate at the University of Cambridge. For this finding, should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, together with your thesis advisor and your boss’s boss. But it was not like that. However, his work and his career will remain in the history of astronomy.

In fact, his contribution to science has been highly celebrated. Now aware of the many obstacles that women and minorities face in making their way into physics, she supports doctoral students with scholarships.

Jocelyn Bell knows how difficult it is to make her way in science and therefore encourages scholarships for women and minorities studying for a doctorate in physics. (Photo: Courtesy Jocelyn Bell)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her Deceiver Syndrome

Astrophysicist was born in 1943 in Belfast, a city located in Northern Ireland. During the keynote The discovery of pulsars, which he taught at FIL Guadalajara, Bell tells what it was like to study at the university.

“When I got to Cambridge I discovered that everyone there seemed to be very resourceful. I wanted them to think that I was as smart as them”.

As a student I felt that I did not deserve to be a part of that place. He thought that they had made a mistake when selecting her and that at any moment they would return her to their home.

“It’s called the Impostor Syndrome. I felt out of place, because of this, it was really very, very detailed. “

For his meticulous work, instead of omitting almost imperceptible anomalies as responsible for analyzing the data from the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, he followed them up. And surprise! discovered a new type of star in the universe.

Pulsars, a serendipitous find

Jocelyn Bell first helped build the telescope that she worked on for two years. It was planned for detect quasars, a type of distant stars that produce enormous amounts of energy at the end of their life. In fact, he described 180 of them, but never imagined that it would also be used to detect other objects.

Daily I reviewed about 30 meters of continuous paper with records. In six months he collected more than 5 kilometers; “I quickly got used to identifying quasars,” he says.

Occasionally he ran into brands that didn’t make sense. The student thought it was due to interference from the radio telescope, as it was quite large – it had an area of ​​57 tennis courts – but, curiously, when the signal appeared it was in the same segment, with the same speed, in the same place in the sky.

“My thesis supervisor (Antony Hewish) thought I was crazy. The next day he stared over my shoulder. He found it out on his own. He wondered if they could be little green men. If they are, they will surely come closer and farther away sending signals, I thought ”.

A colleague, with another telescope, had also detected it. Such a coincidence could not have been due to a mistake.

Finally, Jocelyn Bell, her thesis advisor, and two other colleagues published the article. “Observing a rapidly pulsating radio source” in February 1968 in Nature.

The subject generated a lot of interest from the press, because at the time it was thought that at any time the aliens would make contact with humans and, in that sense, they also gave rise to suspicions by baptizing these signals as LGM-1 (little green men or in Spanish, little green men).

The name of press came shortly after, when the science correspondent, Anthony Michaelis, He asked Bell, “What are you going to call these things?” She answered: Radio Pulsing Signals, but Michaelis suggested shortening the name to press. “A short name,” asked the journalist.

This is how neutron stars that have only a radius of 10 kilometers were named, but they are as heavy as the mass of the Sun and spin very quickly.

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The theft of the Nobel Prize

In 1974, Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle, who was the director of the telescope and the head of Bell’s advisor, received the Nobel Prize in Physics “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars” without mention of Jocelyn’s work.

And astrophysics continued working in different universities and projects; the recognition came years later.

In 2018 he received the Breakthrough Prize consisting of $ 3 million; the Nobel awards just over 1 million. So he decided that the money would be used for scholarships for physics students.

“I felt like I didn’t need it for myself. I contacted the Institute of Physics in Great Britain for use by students from different backgrounds, ”he says.

The condition to be a candidate is that they are not white males; “Because we already have many doing doctorates in physics. However, We don’t have many women, we don’t have people of color, we don’t have refugees, or any minority of any kind.”.

In 2021, Bell was also recognized with the Copley Medal granted by the Royal Society in Great Britain since 1731. She is the second woman to receive it, the first was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1976.

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Jocelyn Bell: how she discovered pulsars, was stolen her Nobel and triumphed to tell the tale