Special Breakthrough Prize Awarded to Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Special Breakthrough Prize Awarded to Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation has announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars — first announced in February 1968 — and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

Bell Burnell was a graduate student working with Anthony Hewish at the University of Cambridge when, while collecting data with a new radio telescope she had helped build, she detected regular pulses of radio waves. Bell Burnell had discovered pulsars, a highly magnetized, rapidly rotating form of the super-dense stars known as neutron stars. The discovery led to several powerful tests of Einstein's theory of relativity and to a new understanding of the origin of heavy elements in the universe. Hewish shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics with Sir Martin Ryle "for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars."

Fifty years after her discovery, Bell Burnell will be recognized with the Special Breakthrough Prize, which includes a $3 million cash award. The Guardian reports that she plans to donate the money to the Institute of Physics — where she previously served as its first female president — to fund PhD scholarships for groups that are underrepresented in physics. "A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student," said Bell Burnell. "Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things."

A champion of science, education, and the STEM curriculum, Bell Burnell has taught at multiple research institutes and served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and as the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Currently a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford and chancellor of the University of Dundee, Bell Burnell received a CBE in 1999 and a DBE in 2007 for her services to astronomy.

"Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition," said Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes. "Her curiosity, diligent observations, and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the universe."

(Photo credit: University of Birmingham)