In the 1960s, when Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a top graduate student at Cambridge University, she was dedicated to a project of exploring the universe in search of “pulsars” — collapsed stars that are now considered among the most important astronomical finds of the 20th century. But in 1974, when the discovery was recognized as a break-through and her advisor was presented with the Nobel Prize, Bell Burnell’s name wasn’t mentioned.
It has just been announced that her work of half a century ago will now be recognized as she receives a $3 million Breakthrough Prize, one of the most lucrative and prestigious awards in science. According to an article in The Washington Post, “The special award in fundamental physics, given for her scientific achievements and ‘inspiring leadership,’ has only been granted three times before.”
Back in the days when the discovery was brand new and receiving some attention, Bell Burnell recalls that in interviews, journalists would ask her advisor to explain the scientific significance of the discovery, then turn to Bell Burnell “for what they euphemistically called the ‘human interest.’” In recent years, Bell Burnell has taken an active role in establishing and presenting the Athena SWAN Award, given to institutions that take demonstrable and productive action to address gender inequality.
She isn’t the only female scientist who has had to wait for recognition. The publication Engineering & Technology has put together a list of women scientists worthy of a Nobel Prize. Bell Burnell is on the list along with nine others in the fields of physiology, chemistry and physics.