Jocelyn Bell Burnell, The Scientist Who Discovered Pulsars, Wins $3 Million Physics Award

The pulsar discoverer doesn’t plan on keeping the money for herself and is actually giving it all away to a science scholarship.

3D illustration of a pulsar, fast-spinning superdense neutron stars discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967.
Jurik Peter / Shutterstock

The pulsar discoverer doesn’t plan on keeping the money for herself and is actually giving it all away to a science scholarship.

Fifty years after her amazing breakthrough that revealed the existence of pulsars, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is finally getting the long-overdue recognition she deserves. The scientist has been chosen to receive the prestigious Breakthrough Prize, a coveted award in the sum of $3 million, reports Live Science.

According to a statement from the Breakthrough Foundation, Bell Burnell will be awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, given each year to physicists “for extraordinary scientific achievement.”

The illustrious accolade recognizes Bell Burnell’s “fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars” and is also being awarded to celebrate the scientist’s “lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.”

As the Inquisitr previously reported, pulsars are a superdense form of neutron stars, more massive than the sun but crammed in a tight space no bigger than a large city. These celestial objects get their name from their incredibly fast rotation — and spin so rapidly that they appear to blink, or pulse, when seen from Earth.

As they spin, pulsars emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation, which can be picked up by our telescopes when the emission is pointing toward our planet. In 1967, when Bell Burnell was still a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., she became the first scientist to ever detect radio signals coming from pulsars, leading to their discovery.

Pulsar
3D illustration of a pulsar, or a highly-magnetized rotating neutron star. Jurik Peter / Shutterstock

This momentous achievement earned a Nobel Prize in 1974, but unfortunately Bell Burnell was not its recipient. Instead, the award went to her supervisor, Antony Hewish.

While Hewish worked together with Bell Burnell to build the radio telescope that picked up the pulsar’s signal, the actual discovery belonged to her alone, notes NPR.

Founded in 2012 by some of today’s biggest science and tech names — including Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, of Facebook, Sergey Brin of Google, internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia, and Anne Wojcicki of 23andme, the Inquisitr previously reported — Breakthrough Prizes is finally giving Bell Burnell much-deserved recognition for one of the most important astrophysics discoveries of the 20th century.

“Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars will always stand as one of the great surprises in the history of astronomy,” Edward Witten, the chair of the Breakthrough Prize selection committee, said in a statement. “Until that moment, no one had any real idea how neutron stars could be observed, if indeed they existed.

Commenting on the scientist’s achievement, Breakthrough Prizes founder Yuri Milner said that “Prof. Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition.”

“Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the Universe,” he added.

However, the scientist doesn’t plan on keeping the hefty prize for herself. Instead, Bell Burnell intends to donate all the money to a science scholarship for women, ethnic minorities, and refugee applicants.

“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.”

In an interview with the BBC, the astrophysicist said that she is setting up the scholarship to counter the “unconscious bias” that still occurs in physics research jobs.