Astrophysicist Awarded $3 Million Prize Jocelyn Bell Burnell may not have won a Nobel Prize, but she has received another major science prize. She tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro she plans to help others in the field.

Astrophysicist Awarded $3 Million Prize

Astrophysicist Awarded $3 Million Prize

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell may not have won a Nobel Prize, but she has received another major science prize. She tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro she plans to help others in the field.


This is Lulu's Log, stardate September 9, 2018, where we explore matters of space, the stars and the universe.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell revolutionized astronomy. She discovered the first pulsar, a type of neutron star, that launched the field of astrophysics to new heights. The discovery won the Nobel Prize, but Burnell was not recognized. Instead, her male supervisor was given the honor. This past week, though, she was awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her work, previously won by, among others, Stephen Hawking. She joins me now from England, where she teaches at Oxford University. Welcome to the program.

JOCELYN BELL BURNELL: Thank you. Good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read you always had to fight to take science classes even when you were a little girl.

BELL BURNELL: Yes, particularly when we were starting out science at the beginning of - I think what you would call middle school, about age 12. This, of course, was the mid-1950s. And in Britain at that time, girls were only expected to get married and keep house. So instead of getting a chance to go the science laboratory, we got directed to the domestic science room to learn cookery and needlework.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did you fight your way into the science classes?

BELL BURNELL: My protestations weren't heard. But when I told my parents that first evening, they were extremely angry. And I think the headmaster's telephone got a little hot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) And then you went to university. And I also read that, you know, you would get cat-called and that it was not a very friendly environment for women.

BELL BURNELL: No, it wasn't. It was, at that time, the tradition that when a woman entered the lecture hall, all the guys whistled, stamped, banged the desks, cat-called. You sort of walked in pretending you didn't hear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I guess I'm leading up to the fact that, you know, you went to Cambridge. And you made the discovery of the first pulsar. And then your teacher, your supervisor was given the Nobel Prize instead. What did you think at that time when that happened?

BELL BURNELL: Well, by that stage, I had left Cambridge. I had got married. I even had a small child. And that was actually a very difficult time for me professionally, trying to keep going because, again, the assumption still was that married women didn't work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, so you were upset. You were - you know, you felt that you'd been cheated?

BELL BURNELL: No. No, I didn't. I recognized that the Nobel Prize committee weren't going to notice students - because I'd been a student at the time of the discovery - regardless of which gender the student was.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You told The Guardian something that made me laugh, that you've done very well out of not getting the Nobel.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you mean by that?

BELL BURNELL: Yes. Well, there's a strong sympathy vote.


BELL BURNELL: So if you get the Nobel Prize, I don't think you get given anything else because people feel they can't match the Nobel Prize. If you don't get a Nobel Prize, you get everything.


BELL BURNELL: So every year for the last 40-something years, I guess, there's been some or other prize or award. And it's been real fun because there's usually a party attached, as well.


BELL BURNELL: So it's been fantastic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And your latest one is the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...For your research on pulsars and for being a leader in the scientific community. So what does this latest accolade mean to you?

BELL BURNELL: Well, it left me speechless when I got the news because I never, ever dreamt of this, I must admit. And it's a vast sum of money, as well, which...


BELL BURNELL: ...Is, really, I think, a bit hard to believe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It certainly is. A lot has changed for women in science, but, as I'm sure you know, a lot hasn't. And I think the fact that you're giving away the money for scholarships may be a nod to the fact that it's still hard for certain people to break into the field.

BELL BURNELL: Yes. I think it still is hard for some categories of people, so I'm keen to support people from underrepresented groups in physics. But also, there are people who maybe badly need the money. People from less well-off households could be very good physicists but just don't have that financial cushion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm wondering what advice you'd give to a young woman pursuing a career in the sciences.

BELL BURNELL: I'd encourage her to hang in there. It's not quite as easy for her as it is for her male colleagues, but it is getting better. And working in the sciences is fantastic. You'll never want for a job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an award-winning astrophysicist. Congratulations on your award.

BELL BURNELL: Thank you very much indeed.

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