Jocelyn Bell Burnell awarded for work in astrophysics over 50 years after pulsar discovery

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Sep 9, 2018, 2:00 PM EDT

Over 50 years ago, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was only a postgraduate student attending the University of Cambridge when she made one of the most significant scientific discovery of the 20th century: radio pulsars. Using a telescope she built herself to study a different set of objects, known as quasars, Bell Burnell inadvertently stumbled upon something previously unknown to science before — rapidly spinning neutron stars, survivors of exploded supernovas.

Yet, in spite of being the first individual to discover these objects and analyze them, Bell Burnell was not actually awarded for said discovery. The 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was given instead to Bell Burnell's supervisor Antony Hewish and astronomer Martin Ryle. Bell Burnell was excluded as a co-recipient, and her omission from the Nobel, as well as the lack of recognition awarded for her significant discovery, has been a point of frustration within the institution.

Bell Burnell has never publicly indicated any ill will regarding the Nobel process, recently stating in 2006 in an interview with The Guardian that her snub was simply a by-product of the era. "In those days, it was believed that science was done, driven by, great men."

Now, however, Bell Burnell is finally being awarded for her contributions to science. It was announced last week that she would be the recipient of the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, only the fourth individual to be given the award since its inception in 2012. Bell Burnell has since announced that she will be donating the money in order to establish a special scholarship fund for women, especially underrepresented groups and refugee students, who are interested in pursuing a career in physics, per a report from BBC News. "I don't want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it," she said.

According to Bell Burnell, who has been a passionate advocate for inclusion in research fields, her hope is that the fund will be used to counter the "unconscious bias" that often exists in the scientific community in regards to hiring — in her words, a "fresh angle" from diverse perspectives can often lead to important advances. "In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field."

Well, she would know.

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