Updated on 15 March 2021
Pulsar Stars were discovered in 1967 by the Quaker Jocelyn Bell Burnell when she was a student at Cambridge University.
The subsequent paper which produced the findings was published under the names of five more senior scientists who supervised Bell Burnell’s work. As a result, she was excluded from the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. However, Bell Burnell would later gain recognition in her own right as a pioneering scientist championing women in the sciences.
Bell Burnell’s Life
Bell Burnell was born in Northern Ireland and as a child she went to The Mount School, a Quaker girls’ boarding school in York, England. There she impressed her physics teacher, Mr Tillott, and she recalls his teaching saying:
“You do not have to learn lots and lots of facts; you just learn a few key things, and then you can apply and build and develop from those. He was a really good teacher.”
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Years later when she was a student at Cambridge, in July 1967, Bell Burnell detected a bit of ‘scruff’ on her chart-recorder papers as she was tracking stars. At first, it was thought the ‘scruff’ was simply an error in the data but when the data was proven correct the ‘scruff’ was jokingly given the name LGM-1 – the LGM standing for Little Green Men!
Soon, after Bell Burnell carried out further observations, it was realized that what she had discovered wasn’t alien life forms but radio pulsars (stars that pulse out light). This would prove to be one astronomy’s greatest finds of the 20th century, as the timing of the pulses would allow far more accurate measurements of time and space to be observed in the universe.
Bell Burnell would continue to have an active career in science and teaching, both in the UK and the United States. In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, with a prize of $3 million – for her discovery of radio pulsars. She donated all of the money to fund women, under-represented ethnic minorities, and refugee students to become physics researchers.
Inadvertently, she also entered into popular culture with her graph of pulsar waves that was published in the Cambridge Encyclopedia (main picture).
The British punk rock band Joy Division included the image in a folder of reference material for their 1979 album Unknown Pleasures and it was subsequently chosen for the front cover. The album would become a best-selling classic and the striking image is now known the world over.
Quakers And Science
In 2013, Bell Burnell gave a lecture entitled A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious? The lecture addresses the often perceived friction between science and religion.
Throughout their history Quakers have held ‘science’ as one way of finding the truth and experimenting is a key part of the faith, so many early Friends found themselves observing the processes of the natural world and recording their findings.
This was at a time when science was in its infancy and many Quakers involved themselves in botany. As the branches of science grew over the centuries so did the diversity in which Friends contributed to the field.
Notable Quaker scientists include the following:
Thomas Hodgkin (1798 – 1866), a British physician, considered one of the most prominent pathologists of his time and a pioneer in preventive medicine. He is now best known for the first account of Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphoma and blood disease, in 1832.
Ann Preston (1813 – 1872), an American physician, activist, and educator. Preston was the first woman dean of a medical school, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which was the first medical school in the world to admit women exclusively.
Physics and Chemistry
John Dalton (1766 – 1844), a British chemist, physicist, and meteorologist. He is best known for introducing the atomic theory into chemistry, and for his research into colour blindness, sometimes referred to as Daltonism in his honour.
John Gummere (1784 – 1845), an American astronomer and one of the founders of Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, who built its first observatory in 1834.
Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 – 1971), a British crystallographer who made a landmark discovery using x-rays on crystals. Lonsdale achieved several firsts in science including being one of the first two women elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1945, first woman tenured professor at University College London, first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography, and first woman president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
George Francis Rayner Ellis(1939 – ) a South African scientist who co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with University of Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking.
William Phillips (1775– 1828), a British geologist who was one of the founders of the Geological Society of London in 1807. His Outlines of Mineralogy and Geology (1815) and Elementary Introduction to the Knowledge of Mineralogy (1816) became the standard textbooks of their time.
Robert Were Fox (26 April 1789 – 25 July 1877), a British geologist, natural philosopher and inventor. He is known mainly for his work on the temperature of the earth and his construction of a compass to measure the magnetic dip of the sea.