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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Royal Society unveils portrait of astrophysicist Jocelyn Burnell. Here’s why her discovery of pulsars was significant

Burnell discovered pulsars, which are rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit radio-frequency pulses, on November 28, 1967. Neutron stars are the result of a supernova explosion, which is when a star reaches the end of its life and dies.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 30, 2020 11:48:27 am
Royal Society portrait of Jocelyn Burnell, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, radio pulsars, bell burnell radio pulsarsThe portrait, an oil painting, has been made by artist Stephen Shankland and marks 53 years since Burnell made her discovery. (Photo credit: The Royal Society via Stephen Shankland/Twitter)

On Saturday, The Royal Society unveiled a new portrait of astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who is credited with discovering pulsars when she was a PhD student at Cambridge University.

The portrait, an oil painting, has been made by artist Stephen Shankland and marks 53 years since Burnell made her discovery. The painting, which was commissioned by The Royal Society, is part of an ongoing project that aims to increase the number of female scientists represented in its art collection of fellows and presidents.

Who is Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell?

Burnell was born in Northern Ireland in 1943. After failing 11-plus, she went to a boarding school in York where she became passionate about physics. She completed her PhD in radio astronomy from Cambridge University in 1969, after which she held several academic positions around the world. She was the president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002-2004 and was the first woman to hold the office of the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 2014-2018.

Burnell discovered pulsars, which are rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit radio-frequency pulses, on November 28, 1967. Neutron stars are the result of a supernova explosion, which is when a star reaches the end of its life and dies.

The discovery was recognised by a Nobel Prize in physics in 1974 that was shared by two professors, Antony Hewish (Burnell’s supervisor) and Martin Ryle. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said at the time that Hewish was awarded half of the prize “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”.

To the suggestion that Burnell should have won the Nobel Prize, she wrote in a 1977 article that featured in the Annals of New York Academy of Sciences and which was also her after-dinner speech at the Eighth Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics that, “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.”

The chart that captures the precise moment that pulsars were discovered by Burnell was put on display for the first time on International Women’s Day in 2019 marking the 200th anniversary of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (CPS). 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

How were pulsars discovered?

Burnell was a PhD student at Cambridge at the time and was working with her supervisor Hewish to make radio observations of the universe. She ended up discovering a pulsar using a vast radio telescope occupying an area of 4.5 acres that was designed by Hewish and joined him and the team of five when the construction of the telescope was about to begin. The telescope was built to measure the random brightness flickers of a different category of celestial objects called quasars.

The telescope took over two years to build and the team started operating it in July 1967. As per Burnell, she had the sole responsibility of operating the telescope and analysing its data output, which amounted to 96-feet of chart paper everyday, which she analysed by hand.

In the 1977 article, titled, “Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?”, Burnell wrote that the story of the discovery of pulsars began in the middle of 1960s when the technique of interplanetary scintillation (IPS) was discovered. This technique involved the fluctuation in the emission of radio signals from a compact radio source such as a quasar and was chosen by Hewish to pick out quasars. While analysing the telescope’s output, Burnell saw that there were unexpected markings on the chart that were recorded approximately every 1.33 seconds.

In the history of radio astronomy, the signals observed by Burnell in 1967, were at the time most suggestive of extraterrestrial life which are described as having been made “by chance” by NASA. But as per Burnell, while the source of the radio signals were speculated to come from another civilisation, the team “did not really believe it”.

The paper announcing the first pulsar was submitted to the journal Nature on January 3, 1968 and was published in February the same year. In this paper, the authors, which included Burnell and Hewish, described their observations as a “strange new class of radio source” and proposed that the source could either be a white dwarf or a neutron star.

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