Pulsars are some of the most fascinating objects in the universe. They are small, dense stars that spin rapidly and emit beams of radiation that sweep across the sky like cosmic lighthouses. They can be used to test fundamental theories of physics, detect gravitational waves, navigate space missions, and even search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
But who discovered these amazing stars? The answer is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist who made the groundbreaking observation in 1967 when she was a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She noticed some mysterious signals in the data collected by a radio telescope that she and her supervisor Antony Hewish had built to study quasars, distant and bright sources of radio waves.
She realized that these signals were coming from a spinning star that was emitting regular pulses of radio waves. She called it a pulsar, short for pulsating star. It was a totally new kind of object that astronomers had never expected or dreamt of.
“The excitement was because this was a totally unexpected, totally new kind of object, behaving in a way that astronomers had never expected, never dreamt of,” she said in a 2010 BBC documentary.
Her discovery was so important that it won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974. But she was not included in the prize, which went to her supervisor Hewish and another radio astronomer Martin Ryle. She has said that she does not mind the oversight because she understands that Nobel prizes are not usually awarded to research students.
However, many people think that she deserved more recognition for her contribution to science. One of them is Chiara Mingarelli, an astrophysicist at the Flatiron Institute in New York City.
“I cannot think of a more deserving scientist to win this prize,” she said. “In addition to being both a pioneer and a giant in the field, Bell Burnell is the highest calibre role model — a champion for women in science, who speaks out against the many inequities faced by women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields.”
That is why Bell Burnell has been awarded a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her discovery and leadership. The Breakthrough prizes are funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and are the largest monetary science prizes in the world.
“Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy,” said Edward Witten, the chair of the Breakthrough Prize committee.
But Bell Burnell is not keeping the prize money for herself. She plans to donate it to fund scholarships for underrepresented groups in physics, such as women, ethnic minorities, refugees and people from low-income backgrounds.
“I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it,” she said.
She hopes that her donation will help inspire and support more people to pursue careers in physics and make new discoveries that will enrich our understanding of the universe.