Physicist Receives $3M Breakthrough Prize Decades Later

Physicist Receives $3M Breakthrough Prize Decades Later
By Silicon Republic [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

Irish physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell has been awarded the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She discovered pulsars in 1967, but she wasn’t awarded for her hard work until this week.

At that time, Bell Burnell was a doctoral student at Cambridge University. In the course of her research, she spotted small, repeating signals hidden in data she was carefully going through at the newly opened Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. Studying carefully and with determination, she learned  that the signals she detected were flashes of light coming from a spinning star. That’s when she discovered pulsars, a type of neutron star which has greatly impacted how we understand astronomy.

“It was a very, very small signal. It occupied about one part in 100,000 of the three miles of chart data that I had,” she told The Guardian. “I noticed it because I was being really careful, really thorough, because of impostor syndrome.”

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The pulses coming from these stars are so regular that they can be used as a kind of a cosmic clock. Pulsars also helped astronomers understand the deeper structure of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and test the Theory of Relativity. Pulsars are a major discovery in astronomy which helped shape the laws of physics and astrophysics. However, it took Bell Burnell time to receive her $3 million Breakthrough Prize, being an Irish woman who was trying to stand up in the world of men and be recognized as an important astrophysicist in the 1960s.

“Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy,” said Edward Witten, chair of the Selection Committee, in a press release. “Until that moment, no one had any real idea how neutron stars could be observed, if indeed they existed. Suddenly it turned out that nature has provided an incredibly precise way to observe these objects, something that has led to many later advances.”

In 1974, Bell Burnell’s supervisor Antony Hewish and colleague Martin Ryle received The Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. Despite her vast contributions, Bell Burner wasn’t included in the prize.

Since then, she has been honored with a large number of awards. In fact, the special $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was only awarded to three other scientists along with her: Professor Stephen Hawking, the Higgs boson discovery team and the LIGO collaboration, which discovered gravitational waves.


Bell Burnell will receive her award at the Breakthrough Prize Ceremony on November 4, and she already knows what she will do with the money. She plans to donate it to the Institute of Physics to fund doctoral scholarships for minority applicants.

“I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I was both female but also from the north-west of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English, “ Bell Burnell told the BBC. “So I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.”

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