Astronomer Who Controversially Missed Out On Nobel Wins $3 Million Physics Award For Monumental Discovery

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astronomer who discovered the first pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star back in 1967 and missed out on receiving a Nobel Prize for a ground-breaking astrophysics discovery. As we now know that pulsars are rapidly rotating stars which can spin at hundreds times per minute, firing out jets of radiation in the process.


She missed out on receiving a nobel prize for her revolutionary discovery in astrophysics and has recently been announced as the recipient of the $3 million breakthrough physics prize. The prize will be awarded in a star-studded ceremony in early November in California.
Pulsars are now known to be fascinating, rapidly spinning neutron stars. Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Her discovery earned the Nobel Prize in 1974 but she missed out because the accolade went to her supervisor Antony Hewish and the astronomer martin ryle. Dr burnell is set to receive commendation from the annual breakthrough prizes sponsored by facebook’s mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner a Russian billionaire.

Milner said in a statement “professor bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition. Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the universe.” Speaking to iflscience, dr burnell said she was “totally speechless” when told she would be winning the prize. “i didn’t expect it, it was nowhere on my radar,” she said.
Since her discovery, she has been given other prestigious awards and honorary degrees as she specified that it may not have happened had she won the top prize in science. 
Pulsars are one of many short-lived events that we have been able to observe. Smilyk Pavel/Shutterstock

“I did extremely well out of not getting the Nobel Prize,” she said. “Because if you get a big prize like that nobody gives you anything else, because they feel they can’t match it. Whereas if you don’t get it, you get just about everything else that moves. So, most years there’s been a party around some award or other.”
Dr burnell, who is currently professor of astrophysics at the university of oxford, and chancellor of the university of dundee, said she was “utterly puzzled” by the pulsar discovery, with some doubts over whether it was caused by earth-based interference.
She is particularly interested in transient events, a field her discovery spawned. These are astronomical events that can last from seconds to years, short enough for us to study and observe on earth.

“I’m very, very interested, in the whole transient field to be honest,” she said. “fast radio bursts [FRBs] have been hugely exciting, but i’ve also had a long-term interest in transients. There’s a plethora of amazing stuff that we’re finding.”

Dr Burnell’s story of missing out on a Nobel Prize highlights the lack of female Nobel laureates.  Today, women remain underrepresented, as no woman has won a Nobel Prize since 2015, with only 49 female recipients in total compared to 847 men. She also told the BBC the money would be used as a scholarship fund for women and minorities.


This latest breakthrough prize is therefor certain to bring a smile to many other astronomers, even if Dr Burnell herself no longer seems too disconcerted by the events decades ago.  As she states that “I think actually I’ve done rather well in not getting [the Nobel Prize],”

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