Helena Pozniak
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How do you become a world-famous astrophysicist?

The Telegraph
Famous astrophysicist and first woman president of the Institute of Physics, Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (DBE), describes the job skills most valuable to scientists


“Discovered first four pulsars” – astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s first entry on her CV sounds deceptively simple. The find – spinning stars made up of neutrons – would prove momentous and astronomers later recognised pulsars as critical for understanding the nature of stars.

She came across them in the late Sixties by looking at printed data from a four-acre radio telescope that she had helped build during her PhD at the University of Cambridge. “I analysed more than three miles of paper chart during this work,” says Bell Burnell, who noticed that strange radio pulses – amounting to a smudge less than a quarter of an inch on the page – couldn’t be explained.

Famously she wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974 for her discovery. To the outrage of many within science, her male supervisors received it. As the only female physics undergraduate at Glasgow University – where, according to traditions of the time, male students would stamp, whistle and bang the desk every time she entered a class – she had regularly faced prejudice. Thankfully, the scientific establishment has since more than made up for the slight with a shower of awards, and her academic career has been distinguished.

Bell Burnell bears no grudge to her past treatment and is open about the grit required to combine motherhood with her work – from 1974 to 1991 she was raising a family alongside her substantial academic career. “I had to recognise one cannot do everything,” she says. “I have always been good at grabbing opportunities, gaining experience and thereby making my own ‘luck’.”

The first woman president of the Institute of Physics, she believes scientists need many skills, not least good communication, common sense and curiosity – that “huge questions” remain to be answered.

“We have yet to work out what dark matter is, and also what dark energy is – the invisible material that provides the gravity that holds galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, together. Apparently it is not made of the same stuff as the visible bits of the universe – protons, neutrons and electrons – so sorting this out is likely to bring about a revolution in physics,” says Bell Burnell.

Although officially retired for the past 10 years, her schedule is packed. She has just been installed as the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is hotfoot from a week-long lecture tour in the US – just one of her many outreach lectures. “I also do a little bit of research and lecturing to students,” she adds.

And if she was to start out again? “I’d still go into astrophysics for the sheer excitement,” she says. Engineering and information technology are eager for fresh talent, she notes, and “job satisfaction is more important than a large salary – as far as possible, you should choose what interests you and what will challenge and stretch you.”

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