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Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell at the University of Calgary during a Beakerhead event in Calgary, Alberta, Sept. 19, 2018.

Todd Korol

By her own admission, when Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1950s, she wasn’t much for poetry.

“It was a bit hit and miss the way it was taught in school, so I don’t think it was for me,” said Dr. Bell Burnell, who would eventually choose numbers over letters, become a renowned astrophysicist and, mostly recently, claim the world’s most lucrative science prize.

Yet, this week found Dr. Bell Burnell speaking to a packed house in Calgary, encouraging volunteers to stand up and recite astronomically themed poems as the kickoff to the annual Beakerhead festival − a mash-up of art, science and engineering now in its sixth year.

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Among the selections she chose was Delay by the late English poet Elizabeth Jennings. In its closing lines, the poem compares light from the stars, which travels for years to reach us, to human affections that are sometimes only recognized in retrospect:

The star's impulse

Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful

And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

It seems an apt theme for Dr. Bell Burnell, now a visiting professor at Oxford University among other academic roles, whose story has taken on new relevance more than 50 years after the discovery for which she is best known.

At the time, she was a graduate student in radio astronomy at Cambridge University, where she was trying to make sense of some peculiar signals in her data. The result was the first detection of pulsars, rapidly spinning stellar corpses whose lighthouse-like beams of radio energy reach out to us from across the Milky Way galaxy.

Since then, pulsars have become indispensable tools for testing the laws of physics and understanding the evolution of matter in the universe. But in 1974, when it came time to dole out Nobel prizes for the find, she was overlooked by the Nobel committee and the prize instead was shared by her supervisor and another male astronomer.

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So, earlier this month, when Dr. Bell Burnell was named the winner of a US$3-million special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, she garnered headlines not only for some overdue recognition of her scientific work, but for her opting to donate the money to support graduate students from groups underrepresented in physics.

That decision, she said, was motivated by her own experience of coming of age professionally at a time when women were largely absent from astronomy and role models non-existent. It was a recipe, she said, for a severe case of imposter syndrome.

“I arrived in Cambridge and everyone appeared to be terribly brilliant … I reckoned I wasn’t,” she said.

Concluding that she would be tossed out for not being bright enough, she resolved to work as hard as she could at the project she’d been given, “so that when they threw me out I wouldn’t have a guilty conscience. I’d know I’d done my best.”

The project involved first building a radio telescope − a clothesline-like array of wires designed to net radio waves from the cosmos − and then understand the jumble of static it produced. By late November, 1967, she had become aware of an unusual beat on her celestial receiver. Easy to miss, it caught her attention only because she’d been working so intently on the reams of data while trying to make sure she hadn’t done anything wrong.

The recurring signal pulsed like clockwork, every 1.337 seconds. Steady and precise, it seemed suspiciously like a human-generated signal, but after doggedly tracking the source of the pulses over several weeks she realized it was moving with the stars.

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Soon her supervisor, Antony Hewish, was also convinced that she was onto something. Nicknaming the source LGM for “little green men,” the two worked to characterize the signal and even check whether it was some kind if message from an extraterrestrial civilization. That was quickly ruled out, but the signal defied explanation until the telescope turned up a second pulsing source, then a third and a fourth. The correct explanation finally emerged in early 1968. Each pulsing radio source was the result of a supernova − a massive star exploding and leaving behind a dense, rapidly spinning core. In a story for The Daily Telegraph, British science journalist Anthony Michaelis helpfully coined the term “pulsar” to described the new celestial phenomenon.

Six years later, colleagues were outraged when only Dr. Hewish and Martin Ryle (another pioneering radio astronomer at Cambridge) were awarded what became known as the “No-Bell” prize.

Dr. Bell Burnell remains circumspect about the controversy. As the first Nobel ever given for an astronomical discovery, the award was a huge precedent for the entire field, she said. “And I was rather proud that it was these stars that did it.”

As for whether the Breakthrough Prize amounts to a sort of poetic justice, Dr. Bell Burnell would say only that she’s grateful to have won many awards over the years along with the support of her peers. But she’s clear on what she hopes will emerge from the prize money she has donated.

“I think there’s a lot more to be found,” she said about future prospects for astronomical discovery, “and I think it will be other students from diverse backgrounds that will get their hands on the data that show that.”

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