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.

“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 Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and Chancellor of the University of Dundee, said she was “utterly puzzled” by the initial pulsar discovery, with some doubts over whether it was caused by Earth-based interference.

Eventually they were able to confirm its authenticity, and open up an exciting new area of astronomy. We now know pulsars are rapidly rotating stars the size of a city, which can spin at hundreds of times per minute, firing out jets of radiation in the process.

She retains the same passion for astronomy she had back then, and 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, compared to much longer processes like the evolution of a galaxy over millions of years.

Pulsars are one of many short-lived events that we have been able to observe. Smilyk Pavel/Shutterstock

“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 is one that is still contentious, and highlights the lack of female Nobel Laureates. Women remain sorely underrepresented even today; no woman has won a Nobel Prize since 2015, with only 49 female recipients in total compared to 847 men.

This latest Breakthrough Prize is therefore pretty certain to bring a smile to many other astronomers, even if Dr Burnell herself no longer seems too perturbed by the events decades ago.

“I think actually I’ve done rather well in not getting [the Nobel],” she said. And $3 million says she’s probably right.

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