The Extraordinary Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Laura Burn celebrates the news that Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s portrait is to be added to the Royal Society collection by discussing her remarkable career.
The Northern Irish astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who made a significant scientific discovery in 1967 while a postgraduate student at Cambridge University, but who was passed over for the Nobel Prize in favour of her male supervisor and other male collaborator, has now taken her well-deserved place among the predominantly male portrait collection of the Royal Society.
Bell Burnell was looking through chart-recorder printouts from a large radio telescope, built by the quasar research team she was part of, when she noticed an unusually regular pulse. After checking through over three miles worth of printouts, she was satisfied that this pulse was a rapidly rotating neutron star. This type of star was later named a pulsar, which emits beams of electromagnetic radiation out of its magnetic poles – an amazing discovery.
The portrait, an oil painting by artist Stephen Shankland, was commissioned by the Royal Society to mark the 53rd anniversary of Bell Burnell’s breakthrough discovery as well as her contributions to the future of science through providing a role model for young people who may feel marginalised in the scientific community.
Dame Jocelyn has spoken out about the prolific amount of sexism she has experienced throughout her career, noting that when the discovery of pulsars went public, journalists would only ask Bell Burnell how many boyfriends she had had or to undo some buttons on her shirt for the photographs. Her omission from Nobel Prize consideration has been a long-standing controversy, but despite missing out on what is arguably the most significant prize in the scientific community, Bell Burnell has indicated previously that she believes the decision was correct because of her role as a research student.
Journalists would only ask Bell Burnell how many boyfriends she had had or to undo some buttons on her shirt for the photographs.
Not only has Bell Burnell contributed to science through her discovery of pulsars – she has also made significant progress in advocating for under-represented and minority groups in science. Her most prominent dedication to this cause was donating the £2.3 million prize money from her Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to assist these under-represented groups in becoming physics researchers, which included female, minority, and refugee students. She has also spent time sharing her story at many conferences aimed towards under-represented groups, such as the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. In addition, she undertook the presidency of the Royal Astronomical Society (from 2002-2004), was the first female president Institute of Physics, and the first female president of Royal Society of Edinburgh (from 2014-2018).
The portrait is an important step forward in the future and equality of science; Dame Jocelyn is a perfect role model, and her portrait will undoubtedly inspire countless young female scientists, even if it does “upset a few fellows”.