2025 Physics and Astronomy Congress
2025 Plenary Speaker

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

APR 25, 2024
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Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, known both for her discovery of pulsars in 1967 and her scientific leadership in the decades since, will serve as honorary chair and provide the opening talk as well as scientific context for our other speakers. Bell Burnell was a graduate student at Cambridge—one of the very few women in the program—searching for quasars when she noticed the “scruff” on the paper charts produced by a new radio telescope. That “scruff” was the first detected pulsar. Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars, and beyond being interesting in their own right, they have been used to study the “stuff” in space outside of any solar system and indirectly detect gravitational waves.

Many students know what happened after Bell Burnell’s landmark discovery. Bell Burnell’s advisor, Antony Hewish, and another astronomer, Martin Ryle, were nominated for, and subsequently won, the Nobel Prize for their role in pulsar discovery in 1974. Bell Burnell has said that she understands the logic of rewarding supervisors rather than students; she also told this magazine in 2012 that not winning the Nobel meant she was “carried on a great wave of sympathy and a great wave of feminism…. It’s a waste of energy worrying about that kind of thing.”

Afterward, Bell Burnell had a wide-ranging career in astronomy, studying stars in almost every band of the electromagnetic spectrum. She has headed the Royal Astronomical Society and served as the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.