In the winter of 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell pored over the near-frozen dials of a radio telescope. Between curses, she breathed on the instruments hoping to thaw them when, suddenly, the telescope’s recording chart sputtered to life and began transmitting a series of regularly spaced ticks.
This was the second time Bell Burnell had observed the puzzling metronomic space signals as a doctoral student working with the Cambridge astronomer Antony Hewish. Initially unsure what could cause such a measured celestial blink, Bell Burnell and her colleagues jokingly called the beating emissions “LGM” for Little Green Men.
The second time the telescope picked up a similar signal, she knew it wasn’t a quirk in the equipment or an extraterrestrial invitation. Bell Burnett had discovered pulsars—and astrophysics would never be the same.
In 1974, however, it was Antony Hewish whose “decisive role in the discovery of pulsars” would be honored with a Nobel Prize. In later years, Hewish would diminish, with defensive bluster, Bell Burnell’s contribution. “It’s a bit like an analogy I make — who discovered America? Was it Columbus or was it the lookout? Her contribution was very useful, but it wasn’t creative,” Hewish told interviewers in 2007.
But Bell Burnell was always more than a lookout. Susan Jocelyn Bell was born in Northern Ireland in 1943 and encouraged by her parents to pursue a clear propensity for understanding things. She and her family protested fiercely when, on the first Wednesday of secondary school, the girls were segregated for training in the art of “domestic science,” while their male peers pored over Bunsen burners and beakers.
She went on to study at the University of Glasgow, where she again found herself defined by her gender rather than her brain. For two years, whenever Bell Burnell entered a lecture hall her male peers whooped, cat-called, and banged their desks. “It was a little isolating. I had to work very much on my own,” she recalled during a TEDx talk in 2013.
After enduring years of the simian ritual, Bell Burnell made haste for Cambridge in 1965 to pursue a PhD studying under the radio astronomer Antony Hewish. Clad in cat-eye glasses, she spent two years constructing a radio telescope of Hewish’s design — a four-acre affair consisting of wires and pylons with galactic radiation receptors. This vineyard-like tessellation was originally built to study quasars — scintillating deep-space objects discovered in the early 1960s.
The first time the telescope’s radio-frequency needle recorded a regularly timed radiation signal, the team was convinced a glitch had befallen their equipment. What aside from human interference or some intelligent messenger could account for the clockwork pulses of energy? The Cambridge researchers were plagued by the Little Green Men mystery for weeks until Bell Burnell detected a second — and later a third and fourth — percussive signal from separate corners of the heavens.
As the probability of detecting multiple galactic dispatches from distant, intelligent civilizations was near zero, the scientists sought a solution consistent with the laws of physics and the scope of the universe. Hewish interpreted the data as the result of neutron stars or pulsars: superdense dead stars that emit radiation from their magnetic poles like strobe lights.
Before Bell Burnell divined the cosmic transmissions, it was believed that when stars died they simply exploded, releasing their energy in volatile displays we call supernovae. But her discovery suggested that a supernova may not lead to the wholesale destruction of a star — that something might stick around. Pulsars, Hewish and Bell Burnell would establish, were the neutron-rich cores of dead stars emitting radio waves as they rotated around a highly magnetized axis. Pandora’s box was open to all sorts of stellar post-mortem possibilities, most notably the theories of a young astrophysicist named Stephen Hawking, whose ravings about black holes were suddenly taken seriously.
Bell Burnell would go on to receive her PhD in 1968, sans Nobel, despite co-authoring the article in Nature that would lead to Hewish’s nomination. But it wasn’t just the Nobel committee in Stockholm who were guilty of a double standard. Following the discovery of pulsars, Bell Burnell faced casual sexism from the media and public as well.
“When the press found out I was a woman, we were bombarded with inquiries,” she said. “My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest,” she recalled in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in 2015. “Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”
In the years since the discovery of pulsars Bell Burnell has been a vocal critic of the traditional white male power structure that dominates Western scientific thought and academia. When she was appointed the chair of the physics department at Open University in 1991, Bell Burnell was one of only two female physics professors in the U.K. “Throughout my working life, I’ve been either one of very few women or the most senior woman in the place,” she told the TEDx audience.
After obtaining her PhD, Bell Burnell worked part time for many years while raising a family and following the career of a “peripatetic” husband. “I am very conscious that having worked part time, having had a rather disrupted career, my research record is a good deal patchier than any man’s of a comparable age,” she said in a 1996 interview with the Institute of Physics.
Still, Bell Burnell has continued to advance, earning visiting professorships at Oxford and Princeton. She is currently the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of science and the arts.
In public forums, she often repeats the fundamental truth so many people fail to grasp: that the small number of women in STEM in the West is the result of social restrictions and expectations. “The limiting factor,” she points out, “is culture, not women’s brains, and I regret that its still necessary to say that.”