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

Dr Burnell discovered the first pulsar in 1967. Breakthrough Prize Foundation

An astronomer who infamously missed out on receiving a Nobel Prize for a groundbreaking astrophysics discovery has been announced as the recipient of the $3 million Breakthrough Physics prize.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was responsible for discovering the first pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star, in 1967 while a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge. The discovery has been heralded as changing our view of the universe.

But while the finding earned the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, Dr Burnell missed out. The accolade instead went to her supervisor Antony Hewish and the astronomer Martin Ryle. This decision has never sat well with the astronomy community.

Now Dr Burnell is set to receive commendation from the annual Breakthrough Prizes, in its seventh year and sponsored by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner amongst others. The organization announced today she alone would win the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, and $3 million in prize money, for her discovery more than five decades ago. She told the BBC the money would be used as a scholarship fund for women and minorities.

“Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition,” Milner said in a statement. “Her curiosity, diligent observations and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the universe.”

Pulsars are now known to be fascinating, rapidly spinning neutron stars. Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

The prize will be awarded in a star-studded ceremony in early November in California, alongside others recognizing Life Sciences, Mathematics, and smaller New Horizons in Physics and New Horizons in Mathematics awards.

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.

But she doesn’t hold too many grudges about missing out on the Nobel. Since her discovery she has been given plenty of other prestigious awards and honorary degrees, something she notes may not have happened had she won the top prize in science.

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