A remarkable woman

The contributions of women to scientific research and resultant breakthroughs are frequently overlooked or their importance downplayed. This has undeniably been a continuing theme throughout history. 

One of the most egregious examples was that of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin, using X-ray crystallography at King's College in London, was able to obtain images of DNA which allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to create their famous double helix model. Franklin unfortunately died from cancer in 1958 at age 37 and when the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson and Crick in 1962, Franklin was not mentioned even though at that time there was no rule against awarding the prize posthumously. 

I've been pondering this recently because I've been reading a book called The Tangled Tree by David Quammen, a book which details the history of the struggle to understand evolution at the molecular level. Again, women have participated in the research and, in some cases, have made significant discoveries but often seem to have garnered little recognition for it. So, I was particularly thrilled to read about Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Burnell was the first to discover pulsars. While poring over literally miles of data from a new radio telescope she helped to build, she spotted a faint and unusual signal: repeating pulses of radio waves. She recognized that this was not interference from human activity but was actually something that had not been seen before. The radio waves were coming from a source that moved across the sky at the same speed as the stars, meaning that, like them, it appeared in the same position at a time that advanced by four minutes each day. That, and other quirks of the signal, ruled out a source on Earth. Burnell reported her discovery to her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish. When the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for that discovery in 1974, who do you suppose received it? If you said Antony Hewish, you get a gold star!

Burnell never complained, although many of her colleagues did. Over the years, she has been honored in numerous ways for her work. In fact, she says, “I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize.” 

And now, she has done very well indeed. A panel of leading scientists has chosen her to receive the Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for her landmark work. The financial prize that goes along with the award is $3 million!

Bell Burnell is a Quaker who lives simply and has said that she doesn't need $3 million, so she is donating it to help students underrepresented in physics to study the subject she has devoted her life's work to. Not only is she a brilliant scientist, she is a role model for others and an inspiration to those of us who sometimes despair of our species. 


  1. Unfortunately that has been the case throughout history. Today, women are more represented in science, and garner respect for their achievements, maybe not still like a male equal, but more than they used to. Academia is a cutthroat world: envy, jealousy. Industry is even worse: people jockeying whichever way to get ahead. Sometimes women who advance in their careers are met with men who express things like what kinds of favors she/they did to get ahead. That male attitude is rampant, even if some of them have the better sense of not expressing it in those terms. I have heard comments such as those directed at colleagues.

    1. In science as it is in so many human endeavors, women have to fight to get the recognition that they have earned.

  2. I heard about this story yesterday. It made me happy, the whole outcome. It reminded me of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Did you ever read that one? I loved it. I am looking forward to your review of The Tangled Tree.

    1. Yes, I read and enjoyed the Gilbert book in 2013. In fact, my review was posted on the blog. The Tangled Tree is nonfiction and a very dense read. Also long - almost 500 pages. My review will be here...eventually.


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