Jocelyn Bell’s Discovery of Pulsars – Unsung Astrophysicist

By Yashika Sharma

January 25, 2023
Jame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell in June 1967
Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, June 1967. Credits: Roger W Haworth - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

A Pulsar is a densely magnetized revolving neutron star that produces electromagnetic radiation beams from its magnetic poles, the time period between its consecutive pulses is called the Pulsar’s Period.

Although Pulsars have been found with periods ranging from a few milliseconds (one millisecond = 0.001 seconds) to eight seconds, intervals of one second are typically the most common ones.

The credit for the discovery of the first ever recorded Pulsar is given to Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell who is a pioneering Astrophysicist and a leader in the field of Radio Astronomy.

She discovered the first Pulsar on 28th November 1967 at the Mullard Radio Observatory right outside Cambridge.

How did Jocelyn Bell Discover Pulsars?

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s Ph.D. research focused on the study of quasars, which are extremely bright objects in the center of distant galaxies that emit radio waves.

To study quasars, Bell and her colleagues built a radio telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge.

The telescope looked like an agricultural frame, about the size of 57 tennis courts.

It was originally built to study radio emissions from quasars and it took around 2 years to build Bell and her colleagues[1].

It was only Jocelyn Bell and Antony Hewish on the project.

As they collected data from the telescope, they noticed a strange signal that was unlike anything they had seen before, and 28th November 1967 was the day when it finally happened; she observed regular pulses about one and a third seconds apart.

Hewish, her academic supervisor, initially thought that the signal might be coming from an alien civilization or a man-made interruption (interference) and playfully called it LGM (Little Green Men).

When Bell reported the anomaly to Hewish he initially argued that it was interference or maybe she wired the telescope wrong.

The chart examined by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in August 1967 with data from the 4 Acre Array radio telescope, showing the trace of the first identified pulsar, subsequently designated PSR B1919+21. Credits: Billthom – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

But she was adamant about the observation and knew that it wasn’t interference. So to prove that she indeed put up correct results she discovered another Pulsar.

In this way, she discovered two radio pulses within a month of discovering the first but they eventually realized that it was coming from a rapidly spinning neutron star.

Bell and her colleagues named these pulsating neutron stars “Pulsars”, and her discovery was published in the journal Nature in 1968.

The Pulsar she discovered was called PSR B1919 +21.

The paper announcing the discovery of Pulsars had listed 5 authors with her doctorate supervisor Antony Hewish listed as the first author and Bell as the second.

Impacts of Jocelyn Bells Discovery on Astronomy

Jocelyn Bell’s groundbreaking discovery of Pulsars had a profound impact on astronomy.

Her discovery provided direct evidence for the existence of neutron stars and revealed the extreme nature of these objects.


The Puslar discovery provided evidence of the existence of gravitational radiation and allowed researchers to gain a better understanding of the process of stellar evolution.

Additionally, it gave astronomers new insight into the structure and evolution of the Milky Way and provided a new way to study the universe.

Bell’s discovery opened up a new field of research, providing a new tool for studying the structure and evolution of the universe and allowing astronomers to probe deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos.

Studying Pulsars allowed Astronomers to observe the behavior of objects such as black holes and quasars, which are difficult to observe directly.

The discovery also helped Astronomers understand the properties of gamma-ray bursts, which are extremely energetic and difficult to observe.

The data gathered from the study of pulsars has allowed researchers to further their understanding of the mysterious and extreme objects in the universe.

Difficulties Jocelyn Bell Faced in her Career 

Challenges Jocelyn Bell Faced As a Woman

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was nagged constantly after the discovery of Pulsars made it to the headlines.


Frequently, questions concerning her personal life were asked of her rather than inquiries regarding the discovery.

She describes her experience as disgusting, reporters sometimes asked her to undo the buttons of her shirt for photographs[2].

Jocelyn Bell sometimes used to study 29 m of paper data every night but her efforts were overlooked[3].

Bell states that the Nobel isn’t awarded to graduate students and the fact that she was a woman and a graduate student demoted her chances of winning a Nobel[4].

Jocelyn Bell Was Excluded from Nobel Prize

Jocelyn’s discovery of Pulsars was groundbreaking and led to a Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to her supervisor, Antony Hewish, and Martin Ryle, in 1974.

However, despite her significant contributions to the research, Bell was not included in the Nobel Prize award, a decision that sparked controversy and criticism.

The Nobel committee received mass criticism for overlooking Bell’s contribution to the discovery.

Fred Hoyle was quite infuriated with the Nobel committee for the exclusion of Bell from getting the Nobel prize.

Some argue that Bell was overlooked for the Nobel Prize because of her gender and because she was a graduate student at the time of the discovery. 

Others point out that it is not uncommon for graduate students to be left out of Nobel Prize awards, as they are typically given to the principal investigators or senior researchers on a project.

But she abides by the decision of the Nobel committee and is very content about not winning a Nobel for her discovery and argues that her colleagues were more upset about the Nobel than she was.

Nobel prize or should I say No-Bell prize?

So, 50 years after awarding the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee reveals the names of nominees and other information regarding nominations[5].


So, in 2024, the Nobel archive from 1974 will be released, and the reason for Bell’s exclusion will be revealed.

Regardless of the reasons for her exclusion from the Nobel Prize, Bell’s contributions to the field of radio astronomy have been recognized and celebrated by the scientific community. 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s Accomplishments

  • Bell was awarded the Albert A. Michelson Medal of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia in 1973 along with Dr. Antony Hewish.
  • She was awarded the Herschel medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1989.
  • In 2015, she was awarded the Royal medal from the Royal society.
  • Bell was given the woman of the year Prudential Lifetime achievement award in the year 2015.
  • In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her discovery of Pulsars.
  • Bell was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2021.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s Biography

Early Life & Education of Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Bell was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland on July 15, 1943, her father was an architect who is notably known for building the Armagh planetarium.

She thoroughly enjoyed her visits to the planetarium, which probably sparked her interest in astronomy.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell attended Methodist College in Belfast, where she excelled in mathematics and science.

She went on to study physics at the University of Glasgow, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1965, and later moved to the University of Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D. in radio astronomy.

Later Career and Contributions of Jocelyn Bell

After completing her Ph.D., Bell went on to hold several academic and leadership positions in the field of astrophysics. 

She served as a research fellow at the University of Southampton and a professor at the University of Oxford, among other institutions.


In addition to her research, Bell has been an advocate for diversity and inclusion in science and has worked to encourage more young people, particularly women, to pursue careers in STEM fields. 

She has served as the President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the President of the Institute of Physics, and she has received numerous awards and honors for her contributions to science.

She gave away the Special Breakthrough Award in Fundamental Physics winner’s prize money, which was about 3.2 million dollars, to encourage students from minority groups to pursue physics and astronomy research.

Jocelyn discovered 4 Pulsars two months since she discovered the first Pulsar and today there are more than 2000 Pulsars discovered.

Today astronomers use Pulsars to study extreme states of matter, look beyond Earth’s solar system and measure cosmic distances.

Pulsars could also help scientists to find gravitational waves which could point the way to events like the collision of supermassive black holes.

All of it was made possible by Bell, rooting for her discovery in front of her male colleagues she revolutionized our knowledge of the stellar world.

There is stardust in your veins. We are literally, ultimately children of the stars.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Irish/British Astrophysicist.


Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, ‘Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?‘, Comic Quest

The discovery of pulsars – a graduate student’s tale‘, CfA Colloquium (YouTube)

I Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won the Nobel Prize for It. | ‘Almost Famous’ by Op-Docs‘, The New York Times (YouTube)

NASA’s Interview with Jocelyn Bell


  1. Louise Walsh, ‘Journeys of Discovery-Pulsars‘, University of Cambridge, n.d, “It looked like an agricultural frame, something you might grow peas up – a lot of wires and cables strung from posts over a space the size of 57 tennis courts. It was built to study radio emissions from quasars. I built the prototype and then six of us took two years to build the real thing.”[]
  2. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, ‘The discovery of pulsars – a graduate student’s tale‘, 14 February 2020, CfA Colloquium YouTube, “Photographers saying if I can undo some buttons for the photographs.”,[]
  3. The New York Times, YouTube, ‘I Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won The Nobel For It- Jocelyn Bell‘, 30 July 2021, “There was 1 inch of chart paper every 5 minutes, so 1 foot for an hour, 24 feet a day, and I had 4 of the chart recorders going so almost 100 feet a day.”,[]
  4. The New York Times, YouTube, ‘I Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won The Nobel For It – Jocelyn Bell‘, 30 July 2021, “I think the fact that I was a graduate and a woman together demoted my standard for receiving a Nobel Prize.”,[]
  5. The Nobel Prize – Nomination Archive‘, The Nobel Prize, “Names of the nominees and other information about the nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years later.”,[]