S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

2016 Honorary Degree Recipient: Doctor of Science 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, 2016 Honorary Degree Recipient: Doctor of ScienceRutgers is proud to recognize S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell—astrophysicist, scientist, educator, mentor—for her significant contributions to the field of astronomy, most notably her discovery of pulsars. Over the past five decades she has been both a pioneer and an inspiring advocate for women in the sciences.

Bell Burnell grew up in Northern Ireland, where her father was chief architect for the Armagh Observatory’s planetarium. In her youth, she spent long hours there and read many books on astronomy, further inspired by a physics teacher at her boarding school. She attended Glasgow University, where she was the only female of 50 students in her undergraduate honors physics class, and pursued a doctorate in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge. 

As a graduate student and research assistant to radio astronomer Antony Hewish, Bell Burnell helped build an 81.5-megahertz radio telescope to study quasars; the instrument took up four and one-half acres. In late 1967, while analyzing printouts from the radio telescope, she noticed that “on occasions there was a bit of ‘scruff’ on the records, which did not look exactly like a scintillating source, and yet did not look exactly like man-made interference either.” Searching for the source of these regularly pulsing signals, she and Hewish eventually ruled out orbiting satellites, television signals, and radar. They finally determined that the signals were from rapidly spinning, super-dense, collapsed stars, which were dubbed pulsars.

Hewish later won the Nobel Prize in physics for this discovery; when other scientists protested Bell Burnell’s exclusion, she humbly said, “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.”

After receiving her Ph.D. from Cambridge, Bell Burnell held a series of part-time positions in astrophysics at the University of Southampton; Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London; and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh while raising her son (himself now a physicist) and studying nearly every wave spectrum in astronomy. She eventually accepted a full-time professorship in physics at the Open University, an appointment that at the time doubled the number of female physics professors in the United Kingdom. She was named chair of the physics department a year later and spent a decade there before becoming dean of science at the University of Bath. Bell Burnell is now a visiting professor at the University of Oxford and a pro-chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin. She is familiar with New Jersey, having spent a year as visiting professor at Princeton University.

Among her numerous honors, Bell Burnell was the first woman president of the United Kingdom’s Institute of Physics, serving from 2008 to 2011. She is now the first woman president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of science and letters. Other honors bestowed on her include Fellow of the Royal Society (London), Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Honorary Member of the American Astronomical Society.

Bell Burnell’s interests extend beyond science to other dimensions of the human experience — most notably to literature, as seen in her coediting of Dark Matter: Poems of Space (2008), and to religion, which she demonstrates as a thoughtful exponent of her Quaker faith and explores in her book A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist also Be Religious? (2013).