Breakthroughs from left field
Wonderful to see Jocelyn Bell Burnell rewarded now; her ground-breaking discovery should have brought her 1974’s Nobel Prize. Her male collaborators received that, though she did the hard work on pulsars: supercondensed end-of-life stars that emit intense radio beams. Radically expanding our understanding of the cosmos, such breakthroughs also helped fuel my own interest; ten years later, I embarked on my astrophysics degree). Now she’s been awarded the Breakthrough Prize for her landmark work.
Her account will be familiar to anyone who feels that, despite their abilities, they’ll soon be ‘discovered’ as a fraud. “It was a very, very small signal. It occupied about one part in 100,000 of the three miles of chart data I had. I noticed it because I was being really thorough, because of impostor syndrome.” She went on to many achievements. “I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.” She’s donating her £2.3m prize to fund women, under-represented minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.