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Jocelyn Bell, the student who discovered the first pulsars

Thanks to a telescope she helped build, Jocelyn Bell, who was a student at Cambridge at the time, was the first to spot a strange signal among tons of results. It later emerged that these mysterious signals were actually pulsars. Until then, no one had ever heard of these celestial objects. If her contribution to the field of astronomy was therefore incredible, Jocelyn Bell (or Jocelyn Bell Burnell, her married name) unfortunately did not win the Nobel Prize for this discovery. It is his thesis director, Antony Hewish, who will have this honor. This is enough to fuel the controversy even today.

head in the stars

Jocelyn Bell was born in Belfast (Northern Ireland) on July 15, 1943. From a very young age, the young girl had her head in the stars. And for good reason: his father, an architect, helped design the Armagh planetarium. So she spends a lot of time there and meets people there who pique her curiosity.

After completing a bachelor of science at the University of Glasgow in 1965, the young woman pursued a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. It was during this doctorate that she made the most significant discovery of her life. With his supervisor Antony Hewish, and other student-assistants, they had the vocation to find more quasars. These brightest objects in the Universe harbor supermassive black holes at their hearts that shred stars that pass within their reach. At the time, we still knew very little about them. “My supervisor had secured funding to build a large radio telescope to find more quasars. During the construction, I took care of the cables, connectors and transformers”, she explains in her book “The Sky Is For Everyone”. (Princeton University Press, 2022). “After two years of construction, the telescope worked the first time it was turned on. I was its first user,” she recalls.

“In 1967 computers were rare. Cambridge University had only one, with a memory comparable to that of a laptop today. My data came out on rolls of paper maps. My work was to analyze these maps and spot the twinkling quasars. In the first 6 months, I analyzed 2 kilometers of paper,” she explains. The student, who had at heart to do her job well and to justify her place at the university, ended up however by spotting something that others would probably not have seen: a strange signal which occupied only a few millimeters on some of the pages she scanned every day. She didn’t know it yet, but this small millimeter was going to make a big splash in the scientific world.

A missed Nobel Prize

After telling her teacher – who let her do further research to prove to her that it wasn’t a bug – the two came to the conclusion that the object they were observing emitting sort of pulsations. Jocelyn Bell later found 3 others that had exactly the same characteristics. So they decided to publish the finding in several studies. They don’t know it yet, but the two scientists are facing pulsars. It is a neutron star rotating very rapidly on itself and emitting strong electromagnetic radiation at regular intervals in the direction of its magnetic axis. From an external point of view, this star therefore gives the impression of “blinking”, hence the name “pulsar” in reference to “pulsations”. Until today, pulsars continue to intrigue scientists trying to understand the physical principles behind this star.

“There was a lot of press interest in the discovery, and Tony and I were interviewed several times,” says Jocelyn Bell in her book. However, the treatment given to the student and her supervisor is not the same. “I was asked questions about the astrophysical significance of this discovery. I was asked about my bust, waist and hip measurements and how many boyfriends I had! ‘other blouse buttons. I hated it and wished I had been really rude to those reporters and photographers, but I hadn’t gotten my PhD yet. And I didn’t want to cause too much of a stir.”

In 1974, Antony Hewish won the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. At his side, another physicist, Martin Ryle rewarded for other research, but no trace of Jocelyn Bell. Despite all the work she has done, the student has not been associated with this award. This sparked a controversy that is still not extinguished today.

A bright career

After her doctorate, Jocelyn Bell married and had a son, Gavin Burnell, who would follow in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a physicist. Despite the difficulties in reconciling family and professional life, she never stopped working. She went on to a successful college career. Among other things, she became professor of physics at the Open University, which teaches distance learning, and dean of Bath (United Kingdom). Throughout her career, she has won numerous distinctions, including the Special Prize for Fundamental Physics which rewards groundbreaking discoveries. “You can get away with it very well without having won a Nobel Prize,” she once joked. Nevertheless, the place of women in a field dominated by men is unfortunately still a subject that is currently being debated.