top of page
  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Studies in Expectation: Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and the Discovery of Pulsars.

Sometimes the hardest thing about living in the universe is knowing about it. There is real and true terror to be faced in the indifferent march of the universe towards its inevitable dark close, and it takes a special type of person to stare into the void of our cosmic destiny on a daily basis and contemplate the mechanics of the vast machinery cooly plotting the complete demise of us, everything we’ve ever done, and everything we shall ever do. Psychologically, astronomers of the modern era have to be made of some pretty stern stuff, and how they cope with the magnitude of their subject matter is often as fascinating as their research, and few in this regard are as consistently compelling as Quaker astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943).

Bell Burnell has a gift for Taking Things In Stride that has served her well both in the contemplation of humanity’s grim chances in a hostile universe and during a life that, while serving up an exciting set of triumphs, has also dealt her more than her fair share of restrictive expectations. Her equanimity in the face of adversity is perhaps the result of her unique upbringing – she was the eldest sibling of a father whose family had Quaker roots going back to the seventeenth century and a mother who had been denied a higher education at the hands of the Great Depression. They were both determined that all of their children would receive a quality education, and that they would be brought up in a tradition of critical thinking.

Bell was born in Ulster, where the reigning Quakerism was of a fundamentalist, Bible-first variety that did not jibe well with her parents’ more critical and inquisitive approach to religion and the world. Their Quakerism was more of the English stripe, in which one’s own experience of religious moments had more weight than textual sources and church traditions. It was a religion that left room for critical thought and adaptation to facts, and one that had historically placed an emphasis on gender equality, and as a result had produced, over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, an impressive lineup of women scientists including Maria Mitchell, Kathleen Lonsdale, Sara Josephine Baker, and Graceanna Lewis.

Photo By Roger Haworth

Soon after the Second World War, Bell’s father resumed his career as an architect, in which work he would often bring his eldest daughter as a companion and helpmate, and so from an early age she became used to the careful use of measuring instruments and to the mental habit of checking one’s results against one’s common sense, of thinking to oneself ‘is this measurement reasonable?’ before blindly jotting it down on the page. These were habits of mind that would serve her well on the road to discovery that would make her an international name, but they had to wait for their development until Bell was moved from the generally poor quality state school she had attended for most of her youth to The Mount, a Quaker boarding school in England where she received exposure to the more contemplative bent of English Quakerism, and encouragement in the form of an elderly physics teacher who had come out of retirement to give the girls at The Mount a solid scientific education – Henry Tillot.

It was in these years that Bell realised the extent of her abilities in science, that not only was she doing everything more easily and naturally than those around her, but that she seemed to have an ability to explain difficult concepts to her peers to help them through their coursework. Science seemed to click, and she felt a particular pull to astronomy after her father checked out a copy of astronomer/science fiction writer Fred Hoyle’s 1955 classic Frontiers of Astronomy. Her father, as it happened, was a consulting architect at Armagh Observatory, where one of the astronomers, in talking to her about what it was like doing astronomical research, told her that one of the practical expectations of the job was putting in long nights at the telescope. This deeply worried Bell, who knew enough of herself to realise that she functioned best on a regular sleep schedule and had no gift for pushing herself far into the wee hours.

Fortunately, a few months later, Bell discovered the existence of the field of radio astronomy, which answered questions every bit as monumental as those of traditional optical astronomy, but that didn’t require the night sky for its observations. Reassured, she began attempting to piece together exactly how one became a radio astronomer, and wrote a letter to radio astronomy pioneer Bernard Lovell, who had founded the Jodrell Bank Observatory in 1945 to study cosmic ray phenomena.

Lovell’s advice was simple – do physics. If you have a solid enough basis in physics, everything else can be picked up along the way. Since Bell wasn’t attending a high school whose purpose was to feed students into the rarefied realms of the Cambridge-Oxford axis, she set her sights on schools of less towering reputation but boasting solid physics programs, and ultimately chose the University of Glasgow.

Emilio Segre Visual Archives

At Glasgow, there was a tradition that, whenever a woman student entered the lecture hall, all of the male students would stomp the ground and bang their desks while shouting catcalls until the woman student took her seat, a ritual repeated to one degree or another whenever she asked a question, and with particular vehemence if she ever out-performed her male colleagues in class exams. It was a hard enough atmosphere to bear up against when there were other women in the class to lean on, but more often than not, Bell was the only woman student in her physics classes, and had to stand alone against the ritualised abuse which her professors did nothing to try and stop.

In spite of the discouraging campus culture, Bell continued with her studies in physics and some chemistry, bypassing entirely the positional astronomy that was all Glasgow at the time had to offer by way of astronomical coursework. Her end goal, however, was still radio astronomy, and when Jodrell offered its first summer school program for promising undergraduates in 1964, Bell immediately signed up and was accepted.

That program gave her hands-on experience of what doing radio astronomy research was all about, and also brought her into the orbit of the astronomers blazing a trail in the big-dish approach to radio astronomy. They encouraged her to apply to Jodrell for her graduate work, but her application was never answered, officially because it got lost, though Bell believed the somewhat famous misogyny of Jodrell’s head astronomer also likely played a role. There was nothing for it, then, but to apply to Cambridge on the slim chance she might be accepted. Fortunately, as a candidate from North Ireland, she came with a grant that was tied to her person rather than her department, and on the strength of that already-secured funding her late application was accepted, placing her fatefully under the supervision of Anthony Hewish.

Hewish was studying quasars at the time of Burnell’s arrival in 1965. These objects, first discovered in the late 1950s, consist of supermassive black holes (sporting masses on the scale of millions to billions that of our own sun) surrounded by clouds of gas that release titanic amounts of electromagnetic radiation as they fall into the black hole. Hewish’s project for Bell was to construct a radio telescope which was then to be used to hunt for quasars, the light from which presents tell-tale irregularities (or ‘scintillations’) as it passes through our sun’s solar wind on the way to our radio telescopes. By looking at hundreds upon hundreds of feet of radio telescope observations, Bell could determine the patterns for how quasar scintillation varied with the density of the solar wind, and thereby produce a rough estimate of the angular diameter of the quasar.

It was a neat idea for using the response of the quasar’s light to the interfering presence of solar wind to produce an estimate on the size of the quasar, and for two years Bell spent her mornings in the bitter cold constructing the 4-acre apparatus that would do the job. Amazingly, it worked perfectly from the first throw of the on switch, a testament both to the soundness of her design and the thoroughness of her cabling. The telescope produced 96 feet of observational paper a day, which Bell had to comb through in the search for, and cataloguing of, likely quasars.

On November 28, 1967, Bell noted what she described as a ‘bit of scruff’ – Irish slang for untidiness – in a section of recorder paper about an inch in length. It didn’t behave like the scintillating sources she had been tracking so far, but it also didn’t have the right period for the other forms of interference she knew about. It was a mystery that her brain carefully logged away, and the next time she saw the anomaly she remembered its first occurrence and brought the irregularity to Hewish as a potentially noteworthy inconsistency. What was needed was a better image of the event, taken at a higher speed setting that would show in more detail what was occuring.

Photo by Billthom

When Bell found the signal again, the high speed paper revealed a remarkably regular pulse structure occurring every one and a third seconds, which Hewish took to be a sign of a man-made origin, since only very small astronomical objects could produce pulses of that period, objects too small to be stars. When Hewish stopped by the observatory and saw the event for himself, however, he began to be convinced that there was something potentially significant there, and set in motion the process of checking the phenomenon in another telescope, to eliminate the possibility that it was an artefact of some mistake Bell had made in constructing the device.

The secondary telescope picked up Bell’s phenomenon, which was dubbed the ‘Little Green Man’ for the possibility that it might be a broadcast from an alien civilisation and not a legitimate astronomical occurrence. When Bell discovered a second pulsar, and then a third, however, in completely different parts of the sky, the possibility of it being an artificially generated signal was all but eliminated, and the Cambridge astronomy department was set in motion to organise the announcement of the discovery. Bell was not included in the meetings to discuss that strategy, and she was actively prevented by Hewish from changing the topic of her thesis from her quasar observations, which were an integral part to the research he was doing, to the discovery of the pulsar.

Bell’s name was listed second on the paper announcing the existence of pulsars which was ultimately sent to Nature, and she included her discovery as an appendix in her quasar thesis paper so it would be firmly lodged in the scientific record. As a third year graduate student, Bell had made one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century, and had she stayed at Cambridge there is no saying what role she might have played in the studying and ultimate explanation of the nature of pulsars (Thomas Gold would ultimately receive credit for the correct model of a pulsar as a rapidly rotating neutron star).

It was, however, at this moment, between the discovery of the second and third pulsars, that she became engaged to fellow Quaker Martin Burnell, a government official who expected as a matter of course that the demands of his job would always take precedence over the career of any woman he should marry. The couple waited for marriage until after Bell received her PhD, but the next two decades of Bell’s career would be entirely determined by what city Burnell had decided to move to in order to advance his own career, leaving Bell to grab whatever positions she could in the immediate environs, often with a reduction in pay and prestige.

She first moved to the University of Southampton, where from 1968 to 1970 she performed studies of the ionosphere in Michael Rycroft’s group that she didn’t much believe in and didn’t go much of anywhere, causing her to switch to Southampton’s gamma ray group, which involved using equipment attached to balloons to make observations of electromagnetic radiation in the 1MeV-10MeV range. Bell taught classes while carrying on her calibrations of the gamma ray equipment, and discovered that not only was she good at explaining things to students, but that she rather enjoyed it.

In 1973, however, her husband found a new job, which necessitated a new move, and Bell managed to find a position in 1974 at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, where she worked as a member of the technical support staff for the Ariel 5 X-Ray satellite. It was a good use of the skills dealing with high-energy electromagnetic radiation she had developed with Southampton’s gamma group, but was considered a technician position rather than a full-fledged research science post. The job, however, was rewarding, as it placed her at the centre of the remarkable flood of data that the Ariel 5 produced, data which she would go on to mine for her own research goals.

1974 also brought the announcement that the discovery of pulsars was being rewarded with a Nobel Prize – to Anthony Hewitt and Marin Ryle, Bell’s superiors at Cambridge. Bell had been cut out of recognition for the discovery of the object which had been detected by machines she had built, the signs of which she had detected on one inch among thousands of feet of recording paper, and the astronomical origin of which she had confirmed with her discovery of second and third pulsars. It was a glaring and controversial omission which Bell took largely in stride, to this day insisting that she felt it would have been improper to give a prize for work done as a graduate student, and that she was simply happy that something she contributed to allowed astronomy to get its first Nobel for physics.

With the birth of her child in 1973, Bell quickly realised that she was not made to be a round-the-clock stay-at-home mother, and looked for opportunities to keep in the world of astronomy and education that she could explore from home, opportunities which came her way in the form of the editorship of the Observatory, a prestigious astronomical journal that had existed since 1877, and in her participation in Britain’s famous Open University program, whereby adults can further their education with correspondence courses, supported by tutors in their area. From 1973 to 1987, Bell worked as a tutor in physics and astronomy for the Open University, while working concurrently at Mullard from 1974 to 1982, and found that she loved working with people so motivated to learn that they stuffed their precious leisure hours with studying while holding down regular jobs.

Burnell’s quest for advancement necessitated another move in 1982, this time to Edinburgh where Bell managed the running of the James Clerk Maxwell telescope, which involved interesting international coordination and travel, but tended more towards management than research. In 1991 she became professor of physics at the Open University, a position she held for ten years, during which time she succeeded in re-introducing original research as a significant component of the university. In 1993, Burnell, in a move that will, by this point, surprise precisely nobody, decided to leave Bell for a younger, less complicated, spouse, which ultimately allowed Bell to step forward into the spotlight in a way she hadn’t allowed herself while married to a spouse who bridled at her success and fame. She took up more speaking engagements and interviews and in 2004 took up the presidency of the Royal Astronomical Society for two years, followed in 2008 by a two year stint as the president of the Institute of Physics.

In 2013, she published A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also be Religious?, a transcript of a James Backhouse Lecture she gave to an audience of Quakers that stands as one of the more remarkable reflections about the intersection between religion and astronomical research yet set down by a scientist. It is unrelenting in its portrayal of a doomed planet set in an equally doomed universe which is consuming its precious reserves of hydrogen on its way to a cold, dark, diffuse nothingness. Bell’s Christianity has no room for creation mythologies or all-powerful superbeings, indeed for anything but the assuredness of destruction and the comfort of some godly presence that means us well but is rather powerless in the face of the basic truths of existence. It’s an intriguing, terrifying document but ultimately, even for those of us who don’t believe in godly beings of any sort, a comforting one. Now is ours, tomorrow isn’t, and that makes our todays just that much more meaningful in their beautiful ultimate meaninglessness.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell continues to study intriguing aspects of the deep night sky, and in 2018 won the Special Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics, the proceeds for which she donated entirely to a fund to help women, refugees, and minorities achieve research positions, making the journey for the next generation perhaps a bit less fraught with expectational encumbrances than hers had been.


A Quaker Astronomer Reflects is pretty easily obtainable through print-on-demand type services, and contains bits and pieces of Bell Burnell’s story in addition to a gallop through all of the different ways life as we know it is going to inevitably end. For the most in-depth look into her career this side of the three-part BBC miniseries Beautiful Minds, her American Institute of Physics interview with David DeVorkin is pretty wonderful.

If you'd like to read more about women astronomers like this one, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.


bottom of page