Northern Irish Astrophysicist and former Trinity pro-chancellor scoops major prize

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell will donate her prize of $3mn to increase diversity in science

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, pro-chancellor at Trinity between 2013-2018, has received the Breakthrough prize for her work in discovering solar pulsars and a lifetime of leadership in the scientific community. Bell Burnell will receive a $3mn prize money and follows in the steps of Stephen Hawking, researchers at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), and scientists who detected gravitational waves.

Bell Burnell made the discovery in 1967 while working at Cambridge, concerning a type of star which acts like a cosmic lighthouse, rotating and emitting a beam of electromagnetic radiation. She picked up traces of this emission in the form of radio waves. Convinced of its significance, her supervisor assumed it was interference, a common problem at the time. However, after further testing, leading to her discovery that the radio signals repeated regularly, though faintly; one part in every 100,000 in the three miles of chart she analysed.

The Nobel Prize committee recognised the discovery, but her part in it was overlooked, and the prize was awarded to her supervisor instead.Despite this, Bell Burnell commented that the Nobel prize snub was a blessing in disguise, saying: “If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”

While Bell Burnell says that she is at peace with the snub, it is clear that she aims to break down the barriers which may have prevented her inclusion in sharing the Nobel prize. She will be donating all of the money she receives from the Breakthrough prize to counter unconscious bias in physics by specifically helping women, underrepresented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.

Aside from her academic achievements, Bell Burnell also helped set up the Athena SWAN Charter in 2005, which is a recognition and award scheme for positive gender practice in Higher Education.

Irish universities must complete and hold either a bronze, silver or gold Athena SWAN accreditation level in order to receive funding by 2019. Her work in the Athena SWAN charter directly affects all science research departments who are seeking funding from Irish funding bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland.

Trinity currently holds an Institutional Bronze award, and three School Bronze awards for the Schools of Chemistry, Natural Sciences and Physics. The required accreditation will increase to silver for 2023. No Irish University or department has reached this level yet.  

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is a former Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News.