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How a Female Physicist Snubbed for the 1974 Nobel Prize Is Enjoying a $3 Million Payback

September 6, 2018, 12:05 PM UTC

As a graduate student, astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell sifted through miles of printouts to find an unexpected repeating radio signal that became the first solid evidence of pulsars, a special class of stars. Her supervisor wrote it off as noise until she confirmed the finding from several other sources in the sky and argued it was a new, natural phenomena.

Pulsars turned out to be important for testing Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and laying the groundwork for the recent confirmation of gravitational waves, among many other things. But when the Nobel Prize committee recognized the work in 1974, it named Bell Burnell’s supervisor and another researcher.

Despite the Nobel snub, Bell Burnell went on to have a long and fruitful career in astronomy—one that included helping women and minorities in science. And today the astronomer, now at the University of Dundee and visiting the University of Oxford, both in the U.K., has won an even bigger prize: a special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics of $3 million.

The well-heeled Breakthrough Prizes date to 2012, when entrepreneur Yuri Milner and other Silicon Valley titans established prizes in physics, life sciences, and mathematics. The selection committee consists of previous winners of the prizes.

“I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize,” Bell Burnell told The Guardian. “If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”

Bell Burnell has already announced that she will pass the prize money to the Institute of Physics, a U.K. non-profit, to set up physics scholarships for people from under-represented groups. “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student,” she told The Guardian. “Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

Fellow scientists agreed.

“In addition to being both a pioneer and a giant in the field, Bell Burnell is the highest calibre role model — a champion for women in science, who speaks out against the many inequities faced by women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields,” Chiara Mingarelli, an astrophysicist at the Flatiron Institute in New York told Nature.

Bell Burnell is one of the women Oxford added to its walls last year.