Scientist donates award prize money to fund female scholarships years after she was overlooked

Scientist donates award prize money to fund female scholarships. Professor Bell Burnell. Photo copyright Paris Grygar, CC3

A female scientist has donated a huge financial prize to fund scholarships for women, refugees and people from ethnic minorities.

Astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded the £2.3m Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics last week, for her work in the discovery of pulsars in the 1960s.

Scientist donates award prize money to fund female scholarships. Professor Bell Burnell. Photo copyright Paris Grygar, CC3

The Belfast-born Dame was a young scientist working as part of a team at Cambridge University in the 1960s.

She became the first scientist to observe radiation omitted by pulsars, small stars with huge masses that rotate at tremendous speeds.

The discovery was a real breakthrough in science. The precise and consistent timing at which pulsars spin makes them extremely reliable natural clocks for astrophysicists, who have since used them to help map the visible universe.

In 1974, two of Professor Bell Burnell’s male colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the team’s research. Professor Bell Burnell was controversially overlooked as a co-recipient.

However, she has now been recognised for the role she played in the team’s work, and has been given the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which comes with a £2.3m prize.

She has generously donated the money to the Institute of Physics, which said it will be used to “open the door” into science for underrepresented groups.

Professor Bell Burnell told the BBC: “I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it.

“I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge.

“I was both female but also 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 a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.”

The money will be used to fund scholarships for other female scientists in the future.

Institute of Physics President Professor Dame Julia Higgins was full of praise for Professor Bell Burnell.

She said: “This prize is an excellent and hugely appropriate acknowledgement of Jocelyn’s work.

“Her discovery of pulsars still stands as one of the most significant discoveries in physics and inspires scientists the world over.

“Her example of using insight and tenacity to make a discovery that rings through the ages stands her alongside the greatest of scientists.

“Alongside her scientific achievement, Jocelyn has become a hugely respected leader in the scientific community.

“She has been instrumental in making sure the issue of access to science by people from under-represented groups is at the very top of the science community’s agenda.”

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Written by Andrew MooreJoin our community