Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell Astrophysicist

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Astrophysicist and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

She discovered the first radio pulsars,as a postgraduate student. Her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Martin Ryle, because Jocelyn was considered as ineligible as a student.

I was the only female in a class of 50 students in college which was difficult. There was a

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Astrophysicist

Astrophysicist and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

tradition among the students that when a female walked into a lecture theatre all the guys stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk. ” I faced that for every class I walked into for my last two years.”

My best moment, would be the discovery of Pulsars. (aka (little green men)      Another being when the decision was taken about Pluto not being a planet.   I got called in to facilitate the meetings about that, because I could handle a large audience, a large crowd.   I’m proud how I turned around a tricky situation there.

I am a ninth generation Quaker.   Quakerism in Britain is a religion first of all, that says it’s much more important how you lead your life, than what you say you believe.    So there isn’t great emphasis on dogma, statements of faith, in fact there’s no emphasis on those.   It’s also a religion that believes there’s something good, holy, positive in everybody; literally everybody, and one tries to find that and speak to it.  Because of that bit of good in you, each person can have a direct communion with God without an intermediary like a priest.  It’s a very good basis for being a manager of people.

It became clear that I was good at  science, round about age 12.   That I could do it.  Particularly the physical sciences; biological sciences never really grabbed me.  Physical science I could do; I found it interesting, enjoyed it, found it easy.

I went away went to boarding school in England, a Quaker school.  I had several good teachers at secondary school, particularly post age 13, there was a good English teacher and a good Physics teacher.  By that stage I was already clear I was going to be a scientist, so having a good teacher means you don’t change that.

That was re-enforced in 1957 when the Soviets put up the first satellite, Sputnik.  That was a great shock to people in the UK and US.  We thought that we were technologically superior to the Soviets, but we couldn’t have put up a satellite.  So suddenly there was great emphasis on people doing Science and Engineering.  Anybody who was half good at it was encouraged, and of course I was already heading that way.

I have certainly done extremely well out of not getting the Nobel.  The Nobel happened at the time when feminism was growing up.  So I’ve been carried on a wave of feminism and a wave of sympathy.  I’ve got every other prize that’s moved since, so I’ve not done badly.

 I was also asked to do a big lecture for the Quakers.    I did it on the Ministry of People who are wounded, who hurt.  Broken for life.  I reckon that was a good piece of work.  It’s wounded in every sense of the word. The title of the book is Broken for Life, and the publisher is Quaker Home Service and it was published 1 January 1989.

If we were in America, I would say my heritage is Scots/Irish.  The strongest element in my heritage is the community which has lived in both South West Scotland and North East Ireland, spanning that narrow band of water between that community, going back and forth.  I’ve spent time in both. But I’m not British, if that means English, as it often does in the US.

But I also have quite a strong streak of service in me.  This may be my Quaker background, or it may be the way women were brought up in my generation.   Although I’m “retired”, I’m doing a lot of voluntary work; but only the things which interest me.  It keeps me very busy and it’s all unpaid.  It’s nice to rotate them.

Also I’m a judge of a Science Book Prize.  102 books arrived in my office on Science; all branches of Science, including Epigenetics.   This morning I was reading about Information Theory.  I’m learning a lot.   Last night, I was reading about Epigenetics.


I think women are still a bit risk-averse, so my biggest message is to give it a go!  It’s well worth doing, and they will probably surprise themselves.   It’s huge fun being a Scientist.  It’s very interesting, very rewarding, and exciting at times.


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