Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins prestigious Breakthrough Prize

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a Pro-Chancellor at Trinity, has been awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. The prize recognises the astrophysicist for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and for her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

Dame Bell Burnell will donate the $3 million prize money to fund women, and under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers, thus countering the unconscious bias she believes still exists in physics research jobs.

This aim is consistent with that of a new European charter (SAGE) to promote gender equality and the removal of biases in the university sector, which was recently launched having been developed by a consortium of seven European universities and led by the Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership.

The Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics can be awarded at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement. This is the fourth Special Prize awarded: previous winners are Stephen Hawking, seven CERN scientists whose leadership led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, and the entire LIGO collaboration that detected gravitational waves.

Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes, said: “Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition. Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the Universe.”

Five decades after her dramatic discovery of the pulsar, Bell Burnell will be recognised at the 2019 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in early November this year, where the laureates of the annual physics prize will also be honoured, along with the winners of the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences and Mathematics and the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

Pulsars

Pulsars are a highly magnetised, rapidly spinning form of the super-dense stars known as neutron stars. Their discovery was one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy, transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way. Among many later consequences, it led to several powerful tests of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of the heavy elements in the universe.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a graduate student in the mid-1960s, working with Anthony Hewish at the University of Cambridge. While taking data with a new radio telescope that she had helped build, she found an unexpected signal: regular pulses of radio waves. With perceptiveness and persistence she characterised the signal and showed it originated from space. She had discovered pulsars. Hewish would share with Sir Martin Ryle the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, shown here in 1974, manually scrutinised data from the array telescope, recorded on long roles of chart paper. Image credit: Robin Scagell.

The study of pulsars has led to some of the most stringent tests of the General Theory of Relativity and the first observational evidence for gravitational waves. In one of the most exciting recent astronomical events, the coalescence of two neutron stars was observed in gravitational waves by LIGO, and in a wide spectrum of electromagnetic waves by a host of other observatories. Such coalescences – called hypernovae – are one of the primary sources of heavy elements, like gold, that are so much a part of our daily lives.

As they rapidly rotate, pulsars emit radio waves, visible light, X-rays or gamma rays like a lighthouse beam sweeping the sky. It was this kind of radio emission that Bell Burnell detected. The regularity of these pulses make pulsars extraordinarily accurate natural clocks – precise to one part in a thousand trillion – meaning a pulsar that is active today has slowed down by only about a second since the age of dinosaurs. Because of these properties, pulsars have helped astrophysicists map our galaxy and the visible universe.