Friday, June 21, 2024

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: To Infinity and Beyond

With her relentless curiosity and dedication to unravelling the mysteries of the universe, Jocelyn Bell Burnell has emerged as an inspirational figure, not only for her scientific achievements but also for her advocacy for diversity and inclusion in the scientific community.

Following its initial appearance in Passions, Vol. 56, this article has been revised for the digital space – exclusively on VOICE OF ASIA.

An astronomer and astrophysicist, Burnell detected the first recognised pulsars – rapidly spinning neutron stars that release regular bursts of radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation. Her discovery ranks as an important milestone in the history of astrophysics, proving the first veritable example of rotational gravity and taking our understanding of Space another leap forward.

As a research student at Cambridge University, Burnell began work on her radio-astronomy project which was designed to study the inter-planetary scintillation (twinkling) of compact radio waves after seeing a ‘pulse’ The soft-spoken scientist let her work do the talking, but met career adversity when in 1974, her college Advisor Prof Anthony Hewish and Sir Martin Ryle were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, with Hewish credited for the discovery of pulsars. She took this outrageous injustice in her stride, and became one of the most respected scientists in her field, irrespective of gender.

Her achievements still continue to inspire. As recently as February 2014, she was made President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the first woman to take that office in the institute’s proud 140-year history with its traditionally male-dominated hierarchy. “One of the things women bring to a project is that they come from a different place, they’ve got a different background. Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males for decades and women view the conventional wisdom from a slightly different angle — and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument. They can give a different perspective of what science is,” she believes enthusiastically.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell has invaded the domain of men – and how. She has used telescopes, flown on high-altitude balloons, launched rockets that carried satellites, and built a radio-telescope. She reached for the stars and in doing so, became a role model other women could look up to, taking women out of traditional confines and rocketing them to infinity and beyond.

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