Anna Sheffer
September 07, 2018 10:33 am

For centuries, discoveries made by female scientists have often been ignored or credited to male scientists instead. One of these unfairly overlooked women is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was responsible for research that earned her male colleagues the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. Now, nearly 45 years later, Bell Burnell is finally being recognized for her accomplishments.

Yesterday, September 6th, Bell Burnell was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her 1967 detection of radio pulsars—rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit radio waves. The Breakthrough Prize website notes that this discovery enabled scientists to learn more about the universe and test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. According to USA Todayshe discovered radio pulsars while a graduate student at Cambridge University, though her colleagues Anthony Hewish and Sir Martin Ryle eventually got the credit.

In recognition of her discovery, she will receive $3 million and be honored at the annual Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony in November. According to the award’s website, the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is open to all physicists and awarded to those who have “made profound contributions to human knowledge.” While the annual prize is presented for recent discoveries, the Special Breakthrough Prize is not limited in this way.

Ironically, Bell Burnell told The Guardian that her own self-doubt is what led to her discovery.

"It was a very, very small signal. It occupied about one part in 100,000 of the three miles of chart data that I had,” Bell Burnell said. “I noticed it because I was being really careful, really thorough, because of impostor syndrome."

Bell Burnell told BBC News that she will use her prize money to help students from underrepresented groups—such as women, ethnic minority groups, and refugees—to pursue science careers.

"I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I was both female but also from the north-west of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English," she told BBC News. "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."

Even though it’s been almost 45 years since her Nobel Prize snub, we’re glad that Bell Burnell is finally receiving the recognition she deserves. It’s long overdue!

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