When Jocelyn Bell Burnell began her doctoral studies in physics at Cambridge University in 1965, she was convinced that they had made a mistake by admitting her. “I’m not bright enough for this place,” she now recalls thinking at the time.
It didn’t help that she was one of only two women in her graduate program. And Cambridge was far more affluent than anywhere she had lived before. Both factors likely contributed to her impostor syndrome, she told The Washington Post, “although of course we didn’t know that term then.”
Bell Burnell’s response was to work as hard as she possibly could. If they threw her out anyway, she figured, she would know that she wasn’t smart enough to be at Cambridge.
Her diligence ended up paying off. Two years after she arrived at Cambridge, Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsars - a groundbreaking revelation that on Thursday earned her the $3 million special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which was previously awarded to Stephen Hawking, among others.
It’s a recognition that many feel is long overdue. Bell Burnell’s male PhD supervisor won a Nobel Prize for the same discovery - in 1974.
Like the stars of “Hidden Figures” and DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin, Bell Burnell’s personal story embodies the challenges faced by women in scientific fields. Born in Northern Ireland in 1943, she had to fight to take science classes after the age of 12. “The assumption was that the boys would do science and the girls would do cookery and needlework,” she told The Washington Post. “It was such a firm assumption that it wasn’t even discussed, so there was no choice in the matter.”
By her junior year at the University of Glasgow, she was the only woman enrolled in honors physics. Men whistled and heckled her every time she walked into the lecture hall, she said.
“I learned not to blush,” she said. “If you blushed, they just got louder.”
At Cambridge, the sexism was somewhat more subtle, she said. When Bell Burnell got engaged, the automatic assumption was that she would be dropping out of the program soon, since it was still considered shameful for married women to work. “I got a bit of the sense that because I was quitting, it probably wasn’t worth investing in me anymore,” she said.
Then, in 1967, Bell Burnell alerted her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish to an “unclassifiable squiggle” on the readout from the radio telescope that she was in charge of monitoring. It was the kind of detail that others might have disregarded or overlooked.
“The source didn’t seem to be man-made - it was moving around with the stars, keeping pace with the constellations,” she told The Guardian in 2009. “We estimated it was 200 light years away, far beyond the sun and planets, but still within our galaxy, the Milky Way.”
As a joke, they labeled it LGM-1, which stood for “Little Green Men.” When Bell Burnell returned to the observatory at 3 a.m. on a freezing cold December night, she had what she called a “Eureka!” moment.
“Wading through miles of chart, I discovered two more of the mysterious signals,” she told The Guardian. “I had, it transpired, discovered the first four examples of an unimagined kind of star - bizarre astral bodies that transmitted radio beams as they spun, which swept through space like the ray of a lighthouse. We called them pulsars.”
The discovery of pulsars ended up being “one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy, transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way,” the Breakthrough Prize committee said in a Thursday news release. “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.”
When Bell Burnell and her supervisor published a paper detailing their findings in 1968, it attracted international attention. The media didn’t know what to do with a young female scientist who had made a major breakthrough, she told The Guardian.
“Photographers would say, ‘Could you undo some buttons on your jacket, please?’” she recalled. “Journalists asked how many boyfriends I had.”
Then, Hewish, her supervisor, was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars.”
Being overlooked by the Nobel committee didn’t surprise her, Bell Burnell told Science News in a recent interview. It was just how things worked back then: Professors, not students, got the credit.
“At that stage, the image people had of science was of a senior man, and it always was a man, with a fleet of younger people working for him,” she said. “And if the project went well, the man got praise. If the project went badly, the man got the blame.”
These days, her Nobel snub is often cited as an example of how women’s contributions to science get erased or overlooked. But Bell Burnell, who currently teaches astronomy at Oxford University, says she isn’t bothered by it.
“I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel Prize,” she told The Guardian on Thursday. “If you get a Nobel Prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel Prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”
As for the $3 million, Bell Burnell, whose Quaker faith preaches living simply, doesn’t plan on keeping any of it.
“I don’t need a Porsche or Ferrari,” she told The Washington Post. “I don’t have an affluent lifestyle.”
Instead, the money will go to creating scholarships for people from underrepresented backgrounds who want to study physics. The funds will be administered by the U.K.'s Institute of Physics, and Bell Burnell is hopeful that having a more diverse array of people entering the field will lead to even more new discoveries.
“Maybe,” she joked, “having some people who suffer from impostor syndrome is not a bad thing.”