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Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Biography, Contributions & Discovery

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first person to discover evidence of pulsars in 1967. In this lesson, learn more about her big discovery and other contributions to science.

What is a Pulsar?

In 1967, a young graduate student at Cambridge University named Jocelyn Bell Burnell was analyzing some data collected from a radio telescope. She noticed something weird; there was a pulsating radio signal unlike anything she had seen. It was small, only taking up about two and a half centimeters of the more than 120 meters of telescope chart paper from the last four days. She knew it might be something important.

She analyzed the mysterious data to find it was truly was something new. Jocelyn Bell Burnell had detected the first evidence of a pulsar. A pulsar, which is a shortened form of the words pulsating star, is a rotating neutron star with a large magnetic field. As the star rotates, it gives off a beam of radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation that can only be detected when the beam happens to be pointed directly toward the earth. Since the star is rotating, its waves seem to have a pulsating pattern.

The idea of a pulsar had first been suggested years earlier, but before Jocelyn Bell Burnell's incredible discovery, no one really knew if they existed or what the signal from one might look like.

A pulsar in the crab nebula
Pulsar in the Crab Nebula

Early Life and Education of Jocelyn Bell Burnell

So who was this young woman, and how did she come to be the person sitting at that radio telescope in 1967?

Jocelyn Bell Burnell's story begins years earlier, when she was born in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 15, 1943. She grew up in the nearby city of Lurgan, which was in County Armagh. Her father was an architect who helped design the Armagh Planetarium. As a child, she loved to read her father's astronomy books, and her parent often took her to the planetarium. They were devout Quakers who believed strongly in education for both boys and girls. They encouraged their daughter to pursue her interest in science and did whatever they could to support her and help her reach her life goals.

As a teenager, Burnell attended Lurgan College, but the school did not allow girls to study science at that time. Her parents, along with some parents of other girls, protested this sexist policy, and she was allowed to begin taking some science classes. However, partially because of her late start studying science, she failed the university entrance exams. She could have given up on her dreams of working in science, but she didn't! Instead, she enrolled in a Quaker boarding school in England that had a reputation for high academic standards. There, she particularly excelled in science before beginning classes at the University of Glasgow.

She graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Glasgow in 1965. While there, she distinguished herself enough to be accepted into Cambridge University's graduate school. She moved to Cambridge and began studying radio astronomy, working with the astronomers Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle.

Discovery of Pulsars

For her first two years at Cambridge, Burnell spent most of her time helping build a new radio telescope. In 1967 it was completed, and it wasn't long before she would make her big discovery! Burnell, Hewish, and Ryle published their findings in the prestigious journal Nature in 1968, and the article immediately made a big splash in the world of astronomy.

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