In Focus
Nov 7, 2018

The Stellar Astrophysicist who Donated Millions to Physics’ Future Stars

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, formerly one of Trinity's Pro-Chancellors, has made a lasting impact on astrophysics – both inside and outside the lab.

Emma DonohoeStaff Writer

Irish poet Maurice Riordan had never seen a sat nav until he shared a car with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell: “We would certainly have been lost without it, as we were staying well out of town – and it was, at that time, a novel connection with space.”

The act of making novel connections with space is a good way of describing Bell Burnell’s illustrious career as one of the world’s leading astrophysicists. Until recently one of Trinity’s Pro-Chancellors (Trinity describes appointment to the role of Pro-Chancellor as “the highest accolade the University can bestow”), she first made headlines for her work on the discovery of pulsars, a type of highly magnetised, rotating neutron star, as a graduate student in 1967. Since then, she has established herself as one of the leaders in her field – and one of the most prominent advocates for gender equality in physics.

But the capacity in which O’Riordan knows Bell Burnell is a testament to the many hats she has worn. In an attempt to bring science out of the lab and into cultural conversations, Bell Burnell co-edited, along with Riordan, the astrophysics-themed poetry anthology Dark Matter in 2008. In an email statement to The University Times, Riordan describes the “wonderful” experience of putting together a book that “responds to the mystery of the universe, and to open up the poetic imagination to contemporary knowledge of astronomy”.


But Bell Burnell did more than merely contribute to the editing of the anthology – as part of the book’s promotion, she also performed readings of several of its poems, most notably what Riordan describes as its “party piece”: a joint reading of Edwin Morgan’s “The First Man On Mercury”. “Jocelyn”, Riordan says, “performed this with great brio. Hopefully, there’s a recording somewhere”.

It’s amazing how she is respected wherever you go, and that means she has a lot of authority in being able to make people pay attention to the issues that she’s most motivated by

At the start of September, Bell Burnell was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics along with $3 million in prize money. She quickly announced that every penny would be donated to the Institute of Physics – an international charity based in London that works to advance the study of physics, which Bell Burnell was president of from 2008 until 2010 – to be used to encourage women and other underrepresented minorities to enter the field.

Jacqui Farnham is the director of Beautiful Minds, a BBC Four documentary series that aired an episode about Bell Burnell in 2010. In an email statement to The University Times, Farnham says that Bell Burnell’s success in the world of astrophysics is “a testament to the intellectual riches that can be brought to the table by those who would once have been excluded”. But she also provides context for Bell Burnell’s lifelong advocacy of STEM: “As a young woman, she had to be incredibly tenacious to study physics, the subject for which she had such a great passion. Her parents had fought to get her into science lessons at school when the norm had thus far been for the boys to take science classes while the girls learned cookery and sewing. And when she went on to study physics at Glasgow University, her fellow students (almost all of whom were men) were not what you might call welcoming.”

Dame Anne Glover is Bell Burnell’s successor as the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Of the 46 past presidents, Glover and Bell Burnell are the only females to have been awarded the honour. Speaking to The University Times, Glover laughingly recalls Bell Burnell’s “fierce sense of humour” and speaks warmly about her “breathtakingly generous” donation. It’s clear that Glover has great admiration for her predecessor, a trait she admits she shares with many others: “It’s amazing how she is respected wherever you go, and that means she has a lot of authority and currency in being able to make people pay attention to the issues that she’s most motivated by.”

We have to get the gender equality argument to move on from the sort of social justice, human rights argument … this isn’t about fixing women, it’s about fixing the system

As well as providing financial support for recipients, Bell Burnell’s donation will likely be crucial in motivating current and future generations of researchers. Glover speaks about the widespread influence of the gesture: “It has much more impact, not just among the young people who will be recipients, but other young people who will think it’s great that older people care about them and make such concrete statements about it, but also older people, and people in the middle of their career. Everyone will be thinking, ‘what can I, or should I be doing in order to pay back?’”

Prof Jane Grimson is the Chair of the Athena Swan team in Trinity’s Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership and was also Trinity’s first female engineering graduate in 1970. In an interview with The University Times, Grimson speaks of the importance of Bell Burnell’s work leading up to her recent donation.

Grimson explains that Bell Burnell led a revolutionary project while president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh looking at why, compared to men, disproportionate numbers of women drop out of STEM subjects. As well as entering STEM courses in smaller numbers in the first place, a bigger proportion of these women drop out further down the line than their male counterparts. Grimson expresses her belief that women in physics are “acutely aware” that they’re in that “isolating” minority. Grimson, like Glover, acknowledges the wider societal impact of Bell Burnell’s actions and their focus on the benefits for everyone, not just underrepresented groups.

“We have to get the gender equality argument to move on from the sort of social justice, human rights argument … this isn’t about fixing women, it’s about fixing the system, transforming the system to make it more inclusive.”

In an email statement to The University Times, Dame Julia Higgins, the President of the Institute of Physics (which was the beneficiary of Bell Burnell’s Special Breakthrough Award), outlines how the organisation will utilise the donation to continue the work of Bell Burnell. “The award will be used”, Higgins, says, “to provide graduate studentships in physics for people from under-represented groups. It is hoped by the awards themselves, and through the interest arising from them many more able physicists from the wider community will be able to continue their studies and develop their potential in the subject”.

Bell Burnell’s contribution is both unprecedented and significant. As Glover puts it: “It marks her as being an extremely singular person in our society and one whose generosity will never be forgotten”. Or perhaps better again, in the words of that Morgan poem she performed: “Of course, but nothing is ever the same, now is it? You’ll remember Mercury.”

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