There are several things that I am quite proud of, but the discovery of pulsars has to be the biggest one. That is a while back now – 45 years I think. I would also say that for a woman, giving birth to a baby is an important event. I have done things that I think are important but that are not as high-profile as the discovery of pulsars.
Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
November 1967, a 24 year old astrophysics postgraduate and her thesis supervisor became the first people to observe a pulsating star, or pulsar. In her subsequent career, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has held posts with the University of Southampton, University College London (UCL), the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, the Open University and Princeton University, and was President of the Institute of Physics (IOP) from 2008 until 2011. As one of the most prominent figures within contemporary astrophysics, Professor Bell Burnell has also campaigned to increase the number and status of female academics working within the fields of astronomy and physics.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Bell Burnell and find out more about the highlights of her career and her ambitions for the future…Were you interested in science from an early age, and if so, what first sparked your interest?
Yes, I started doing science in secondary school. I think that I was very lucky because in the first term, I studied physics and astronomy, and I took to it like a duck to water. I could do it, but for some reason, some other people couldn’t. That felt very good and I really enjoyed it. You often enjoy the things that you are good at, which is fortunate, and I was good at science – particularly the physical sciences. In biology, we drew and labelled parts of flowers, and I thought that this was a bit boring.Were there any other subjects competing for your attention at the time?
Well, I very much remember that at the beginning of secondary school, I suddenly started doing a whole load of other subjects. Our primary school had been very limited, so it was fun. History, geography, languages, sciences…But the physical sciences won out in the end?
Yes, that’s right.Who, or what, inspires you?
Well, I had a very good physics teacher from the age of 13. By that stage, I was at a girls’ boarding school and science teaching in such institutions could be a bit uncertain. However, our physics teaching was absolutely superb and I think that it is because of Mr Tillott – which was my teacher’s name – that I stayed with the subject.What are the most significant ways in which the landscape of astrophysics has changed during the course of your career?
Oh, it has changed enormously
. Astronomy has evolved at a very, very fast rate over the last 50 years, and the picture has changed almost completely. During my lifetime, we have seen data that have reversed the way in which we see the universe. It has been hugely exciting to work within this field for that very reason, and all of that is still going on. For example, astrophysicists are now searching for planets around stars that are located way beyond our solar system. They are discovering lots of them – which is the first surprise – and they are also finding that our solar system is not the model for all of them.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Professor Bell Burnell's proudest achievement is her 1967 discovery of pulsating stars
I think that my biggest challenge has probably been combining my family and my career. I think that this was particularly challenging for somebody of my generation as this was a time when women didn’t normally work. Women older than me didn’t expect to have careers, whereas women younger than me did. My generation was the turning point. It has been very interesting but it has also been hard work – quite challenging.Did you find that it was challenging to make your way as a female scientist in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sector?
Yes, it has been fairly tough because when you are trying to change society – which is what my generation has been doing – it is slow, it’s painful and it’s hard work.Of which of your achievements are you most proud?
There are several things that I am quite proud of, but the discovery of pulsars has to be the biggest one. That is a while back now – 45 years I think. I would also say that for a woman, giving birth to a baby is an important event. I have done things that I think are important but that are not as high-profile as the discovery of pulsars. I have been able to do all sorts of interesting things.What astrophysical advancements do you hope to see during the coming decades?
There are several things that I would like to see happen. The first one is detecting gravitational waves. This is something that Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity. He said that when a body accelerates, it sends out ripples in space-time. We have seen indirect evidence for this – very good indirect evidence – but we haven’t yet had a direct detection. Really, this is because the equipment is only now getting to a good enough level. I’m watching with great interest to see when and where the first detection comes, and I don’t think that it is too far away.
There is also this stuff that astronomers – very originally – call dark matter. It appears to be stuff that has mass, causes gravity but doesn’t shine. There seems to be an awful lot of it; a lot more than the normal matter that surrounds us. I hope that we find out a bit more about dark matter soon. It looks very intriguing. Because it is different from all of the ‘normal’ stuff, there is a whole load of new physics involved, and this makes dark matter particularly interesting.Are there any ambitions that you have yet to achieve?
Well I’m getting on a bit. I shall be 70 next year. I have been able to do most of the things that I have wanted to do, and I think that at this stage in my life, it is a matter of deciding when to pull back rather than chase new things. However, there are always interesting things to do and that is the main thing. If you enjoy what you do, you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.And you have enjoyed what you have done in your career?
Yes. It’s been real fun. I’ve been really privileged to have been able to work in a subject that I love and get paid for it.Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me Professor Bell Burnell…