JOCELYN BELL BURNELL

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by Tim Sullivan

 Born in Northern Ireland in 1943, Jocelyn developed an interest in science and astronomy when her father, an architect, designed a planetarium. She enrolled in an all-girls grammar school that refused to teach its students science, instead teaching valuable life skills like cross-stitching. After Jocelyn, her parents, and others protested, the school finally began offering a science curriculum.

While earning her PhD at Cambridge University, Jocelyn discovered radio pulsars while working on her thesis project. It is considered one of the greatest discoveries in the history of astrophysics, and it ultimately earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974.

Though it was her discovery, she was excluded from receiving the Nobel Prize. It was instead awarded to her professor, who initially discredited her theory. Though this decision generated considerable controversy, Jocelyn rose above it, insisting:

"We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too...I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not?"

She went on to have a successful career in academia and has been a lifelong advocate for women in science. She became the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and was made a Dame by the Queen in 2007.

"Science is a quest for understanding. A search for truth seems to me to be full of pitfalls. We all have different understandings of what truth is, and we'll each believe, or we are in danger of each believing, that our truth is the one and only absolute truth, which is why I say it's full of pitfalls. I think a search for understanding is much more serviceable to humankind, and is a sufficiently ambitious goal of itself."

"One of the things women bring to a research project, or indeed any project, is they come from a different place, they've got a different background. Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males for decades and women view the conventional wisdom from a slightly different angle — and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument, they can give a different perspective of what science is."


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