United Kingdom physicist donates $3 mn prize to boost diversity

James Marshall
September 9, 2018

"Jocelyn Bell Burnell's discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy", Edward Witten, chairman of the selection committee for the Fundamental Physics Breakthrough Prize, said in the same statement. This is the fourth Special Prize awarded: previous winners are Stephen Hawking, seven CERN scientists whose leadership led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, and the entire LIGO collaboration that detected gravitational waves.

Bell Burnell has said it doesn't bother her much that she wasn't included.

The Lurgan-born scientist told BBC Radio 4's Today programme she did not need the "shocking" financial reward from the Breakthrough Prize and hoped the money would be used to support female and ethnic minority physicists. "Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous prognosis revealed some of the most appealing and mysterious objects in the universe".

As a graduate student, astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell sifted through miles of printouts to find an unexpected repeating radio signal that became the first solid evidence of pulsars, a special class of stars. A neutron star represents the most extreme known form of matter-the universe's last stop before gravity's overwhelming force creates a black hole-and pulsars, which can spin at roughly a quarter of light-speed, are neutron stars at the outer limits of physical possibility. They weren't sure what to make of it.

Bell Burnell's work on pulsars "still stands as one of the most significant discoveries in physics and inspires scientists the world over", said Julia Higgins, president of the Institute of Physics, which will receive the donation.

Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates choose the winners. "Right this moment, it grew to turn into out that nature has equipped an extremely valid manner to stare these objects, something that has ended in many later advances".

Meanwhile, Bell Burnell went on to influential posts in astronomy and education, including stints as project manager for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and as president of Britain's Royal Astronomical Society. In some unspecified time in the future that November, she observed something irregular in the guidelines restful by a radio telescope she and her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish, had helped fabricate - a pulse that repeated every 1.Three seconds or so.

Pulsars are essentially rotating, highly magnatised neutron stars.

She was overlooked for the Nobel Prize - with senior male colleagues involved in the work on pulsars awarded the honour in 1974.

Bell Burnell is now being recognized for her crucial pulsar work - but not just that.

"Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition", Breakthrough Prize co-founder Yuri Milner said in a statement today. "I was both female but also from the north-west of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English", she told the BBC. "Almost every year there's some award-and a party".

Hewish followed up on the signals at Bell Burnell's insistence.

Since then other types of pulsars that emit x-rays and gamma rays have also been spotted.

In a 1977 speech, Bell Burnell said she had no hard feelings. "I felt I had no choice-it became a question of where my husband was working, and what astronomical job I could get nearby".

Bell Burnell has already announced that she will pass the prize money to the Institute of Physics, a United Kingdom non-profit, to set up physics scholarships for people from under-represented groups. "There are lots of people who aren't very kindly treated by the current system", she says.

"I'm a bit of a fighter, so I decided that until they threw me out I would work my very hardest", The Guardian. "We are becomingmuch more alert, and gradually getting our act together in each of these domains".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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