Back in 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was studying doctoral-level physics at England’s University of Cambridge and noticed something very unusual: pulsars—neutron stars that emit electromagnetic radiation. This was a Very Big Deal in scientific circles. In fact, the discovery was awarded a Nobel prize…but Dr. Burnell wasn’t the winner. Her older male Ph.D. supervisor, Anthony Hewish, was.
Blame sexism. Dr. Burnell had already dealt with plenty of it during her undergraduate years, saying, “There was a tradition among the students that when a female walked into a lecture theatre all the guys stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk. I faced that for every class I walked into for my last two years.”
Undeterred, she went on to achieve great things in physics. Now, at age 75, she’s the recipient of an amazing honor: The Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
What’s more, this prize comes complete with a $3 million award! But Dr. Burnell, who’s a Quaker and lives simply, has no interest in using these funds personally. “I don’t want or need the money myself,” she said when interviewed by the BBC. Instead, she will put the windfall to work, assisting females, refugees, and other minorities in pursuing their love of physics research. She’s gifting this chunk of change to the Institute of Physics, where scholarships will be created for those underrepresented students.
Dr. Burnell explains her thinking by reflecting on her student days: “I was both female and from the northwest of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English. So I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often very productive. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.” What an inspiring example of using recognition to uplift others—three cheers for Jocelyn Bell Burnell!