Thank You Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Science and technology are often thought to be the domain of man. The contributions of women have historically been overlooked. In no case is this more apparent than in that of Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

In 1967, Susan Burnell was a student at Cambridge University, pursuing a PhD in radio astronomy, and researching quasi-stellar radio sources, or quasars. Quasars are bright discs of matter found in distant galaxies, and powered by supermassive black holes. Supermassive being the actual, technical term for a black hole so large as to contain billions of times the mass of the Earth’s sun. Space is truly terrifying. Anyway, quasars had only been identified for the first time in 1960 by astronomer Allan Sandage, so relatively little was known about them at the time.

Burnell and her doctoral supervisor, Anthony Hewish, built a radio telescope to observe radio activity in space. A radio telescope is much like a normal telescope, but instead of showing you visible light, it displays radio waves. Burnell’s telescope produced around 300 metres of scrolling paper per day, each sheet showing a red line that fluctuated as it detected radio waves from space. Burnell has admitted she went over those red lines with a fine-tooth comb. She was exceedingly thorough, she says, because like so many successful women she was affected by “impostor syndrome”. Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon whereby high-achieving people, usually women, tend to downplay their accomplishments, and live in fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite modest advancements in women’s rights since Burnell’s time at Cambridge, it remains rife in academia.

Burnell’s attention to detail paid off. She noticed a signal showing a pulsing radio wave. The signal only “occupied about one part in 100,000 of the three miles of chart data”. In metric terms, that is one part in 100,000, of 4.8 kilometres. In idiom, a needle in a haystack. It soon disappeared, reappearing after another month of careful observation. Burnell’s supervisor, Antony Hewish, disregarded the finding, attributing the signal to interference from an artificial radio source. Burnell persisted and after discovering multiple similar signals, realised that the radio waves moved using the same pattern as stars – advancing their position by four minutes per day.

The signals were revealed to originate from pulsars. Not the compact Nissan hatchback, but the spinning, shining corpse of a massive star far in outer space, obviously. When a massive star goes full supernova (aka dies), the core collapses into either a black hole or a neutron star. These neutron stars maintain the angle of the original star, but because they are now much smaller, they drastically increase the speed at which they spin. At the same time, they emit energy from their magnetic poles. If these poles are pointed towards the Earth, then the signal shows up as a pulsing radio wave, rather like a lighthouse. The fastest spinning pulsar on record was discovered in 2004, and spins 716 times per second.

Burnell had made one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Naturally, her PhD supervisor, and a male colleague, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974 for the discovery. It was the first Nobel Prize awarded in recognition of astronomical research.

Burnell never spoke out against what many believed to be a snub, but reportedly told the BBC in 2006 that being overlooked for the Nobel Prize “came at the stage where I had a small child and I was struggling with how to find proper childminding, combine a career, and before it was acceptable for women to work… at one level it said to me ‘Well men win prizes and young women look after babies’.”

Burnell has won a great many other prizes since her discovery and was recently awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. The prize comes with a cool $US3 million and will be presented on November 4, 2018. She is donating the money to the United Kingdom’s Institute of Physics to fund scholarships supporting students from underrepresented groups to study physics. She recently told The Guardian, “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student… Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

Burnell was a woman, a PhD student and a young mother when she made the discovery that would propel her male supervisors into the science spotlight. She handled it with dignity and grace, and has since devoted her life to the pursuit of knowledge and the promotion of women in science. So, thanks and I love you, Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Dr Jessica L Paterson, Senior Research Fellow, CQUniversity, Appleton Institute

Header image: Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Licensed for reuse Creative Commons)

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