Podcaster: Richard Drumm

Title: Famous Women Astronomers – Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Organization: 365 Days Of Astronomy


Hosted by podcast editor Richard Drumm.

The discovery of the first known pulsar was the event that made Bell Burnell famous. She was doing work for her PhD at the Mullard Radio Observatory just outside Cambridge. She chose to study the hot, new field of quasars, quasi-stellar objects, for her doctoral dissertation.

Bio: Richard Drumm is President of the Charlottesville Astronomical Society and President of 3D – Drumm Digital Design, a video production company with clients such as Kodak, Xerox and GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals. He was an observer with the UVa Parallax Program at McCormick Observatory in 1981 & 1982. He has found that his greatest passion in life is public outreach astronomy and he pursues it at every opportunity.

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This is the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. Today we bring you a new episode in our new series, Famous Women Astronomers, with the story of Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, also known as Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

She was born and grew up in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. Her parents were Philip & Allison Bell. Philip was an architect who had an interest in astronomy and his daughter found and devoured his astronomy books.

From age 5 to 13 she attended Lurgan College, the equivalent of an elementary or primary school here in the USA. She was not, however, allowed to study science until her parents and other parents of children there complained and got the school’s policy changed.

Students at age 11 or 12 in England, Wales & Northern Ireland were sorted into two paths of schooling, what’s called tracking here in the USA. 

The more academically inclined students went to grammar schools, and the lesser students were headed to so-called secondary modern schools. 

These are the equivalent to what’s called High School in the USA.  The sorting was accomplished by an exam called the 11 Plus test, called that because it was given to students age 11 or older.  

This test is effectively the high school entrance exam.

It’s a big deal!

The young Jocelyn Bell failed her 11 Plus and would have been sent to the lower-class school but for the fact that her parents opted instead to send her to The Mount School, a private boarding school in York, England.

So get this. 

This exam happened before she’d had much of a chance to fall madly in love with science. She was headed straight toward a life of utter mediocrity because of that failed test. She’d have been relegated to at best an office job somewhere, and at worst mopping floors for a living.

This shows how incredibly important it is to assist your children in their development. Luckily for young Jocelyn Bell, her parents stepped up and did what was needed.

Kinda makes me wonder how many other potential scientists we’ve lost over the years. Probably hundreds of thousands. Such a waste.

There at The Mount School she flourished and was especially impressed by her Physics teacher. This shows also what an important effect a great teacher can have, on the students and society at large. 

She went on to attend the University of Glasgow and achieve a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1965.

Then she started a PhD program at Cambridge University, with Dr. Antony Hewish as her PhD advisor.

The discovery of the first known pulsar was the event that made Bell Burnell famous. She was doing work for her PhD at the Mullard Radio Observatory just outside Cambridge. 

She chose to study the hot, new field of quasars, quasi-stellar objects, for her doctoral dissertation.

She was working with a radio telescope array that was designed by her advisor, Dr. Hewish. For 2 years she had helped build the grandly named Interplanetary Scintillation Array, or ISA, from 1965 to 1967. 

The ISA’s a fixed array of thousands of 3.7 meter dipole antennas that can scan the entire northern sky as the Earth spins on its axis each day.

The array was used in Tony Hewish’s research of scintillating quasars. These pulsar things were not what they were looking for, not even remotely on their radar!

The output of signals from the radio receiver was written on a strip of paper by a paper chart recorder, generating a huge amount of paper each day, as much as 29 meters!

Late at night on November 27, 1967, she was looking at one of these recordings of data from back on August 6th and noticed what she called a “bit of scruff” on one of the recordings.

The “scruff” looked a little like Earthly RF interference but it had enough difference that it’s appearance stuck in Bell’s mind. 

She was sure she’d seen it before. 

She went back through earlier chart recordings from the same part of the sky and found it again. 

She showed it to Hewish and he had her record the signal with a much higher paper speed in the chart recorder in order to increase the time resolution of the data, to stretch it out horizontally.

When this was done it appeared that the signal was a series of pulses with an interval of about 1.34 seconds.

“we did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?”

But even so, they amused themselves by dubbing the signal LGM-1, short for Little Green Men. It was in the constellation of Vulpecula and later came to be known as pulsar PSR B1919+21. 

The February 1968 physics paper that was written on the discovery had these names at the top of it: Antony Hewish, Jocelyn Bell, J.D.H. Pilkington, P.F. Scott and R.A. Collins. 

Hewish was Bell’s doctoral thesis advisor and team leader, so he was the one to stick his neck out and take either kudos or flack for success or failure of the project. 

Tony Hewish determined that the signal was repeating at a sidereal rate, every 23 hours 56 minutes, not every 24 hours, and so it had to be coming from the sky and not from Earthly interference.

Scott and his grad student Collins operated another radio telescope at the Mullard Observatory and they confirmed the observation, thus showing that the signal wasn’t due to some problem with the ISA array’s antennas or receiver. 

Then Pilkington measured the signal’s dispersion, or how much the galaxy’s free electrons had mucked about with the signal, and showed that the signal had to have originated from well outside the solar system. He calculated a few hundred light years away, still within the Milky Way Galaxy.

But there was still just one of these scruffs, these mystery things! The possibility that it really was little green men making the signal still existed. 

There was even a high-level meeting just before Christmas, 1967, where this was discussed with the observatory director. What should be done with such an Earth-shattering announcement? They didn’t come to a decision what to do.

Later the same night as that meeting Bell found CP 1133, later called PSR B1133+16, in the constellation Leo. And then after the Christmas break she found CP 0833 and CP 0950.

That February 1968 paper didn’t mention these 3 new pulsars, and it definitely caused quite a sensation! When the British press got hold of the story, with the small possibility of aliens attached to it, the story exploded!

The name “pulsar” was suggested by Anthony Michaelis, a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, and the name stuck.

In 1974 the Nobel Prize in Physics went to Hewish and the director of the Mullard Observatory, Sir Martin Ryle.

Sir Fred Hoyle, who had often had arguments with Director Ryle, condemned the fact that Bell was not included in the prize nomination as it’s perfectly permissible that 3 scientists share a prize.

Three years after the prize, in 1977, she downplayed the issue, saying:

“I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not?”

So what ya gonna do? Case closed.

As for Jocelyn Bell, she had to get back to working on her PhD thesis on the scintillation of radio signals from quasars, so she handed off the work on pulsars to others. 

She found around 180 quasars for her dissertation, looking at the miles of paper charts, and completed her quasar work for her PhD.

The press attention around pulsars was somewhat annoying though, with reporters asking ridiculous questions of her like “How many boyfriends do you have at a time?” and “Are you taller or not quite as tall as Princess Margaret?” And the press photographers asked her to unfasten a couple buttons of her blouse for the photos.

Good grief!

When she was awarded her PhD she soon got married to Martin Burnell and moved to the south of England and began working in gamma ray astronomy. 

Later on she switched over to X-ray astronomy and worked on the Ariel V X-ray satellite mission. She has a list of awards and honors as long as my arm, too many to mention here!

For those of you familiar with the summertime night sky, find the beautiful binocular asterism called “the coathanger” in the constellation Vulpecula and go about 1.5 times the coathanger’s width toward Vega and you’re there where CP 1133 is! 

There’s nothing to see with your eyes, though. It’s a radio target. Of the 2,700 known pulsars, only about 20 shine in visible light, and they’re very dim, you need to take a time exposure to detect them. 

Nothing you can see with your eyes, unfortunatley.

There are probably 100,000 pulsars in our galaxy. Pulsars are neutron stars and are fantastically dense. If you took the entire human population of Earth and put them all into a sewing thimble, you’d have the correct density.

Finally, Dr. Bell Burnell will be speaking at the Astronomical League’s 2021 ALCON convention. The topic is “The Discovery of Pulsars in Context.” 

Visit to register and attend the virtual convention on August 19th to the 21st, 2021

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy

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