July 15, 2010
Happy Birthday, Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Born on this day in 1943, in Great Britain (Northern Ireland), Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsars in 1967.
Pulsars are very, very dense stars that, as they rotate, sweep beams of light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation outward. (This is rather like the beam of a lighthouse or search light.) Whenever a beam is pointing to Earth, we can detect it—and so these stars seem to pulse (or pulsate) in the sky. That is why we call them pulsars.
The rotation period (and thus the “pulse”) is usually very rapid—just a few milliseconds to eight seconds. Remember, the earth rotates in 24 hours, and the sun rotates in 25 days—so a rotation period of under a second is fast!
Jocelyn Bell Burnell made her discovery while she was a postgraduate student working with others under her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish. The paper the team put out about their pulsar observations listed five names, with Hewish's name first. In 1974 Hewish received a Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery—but Bell Burnell wasn't included as a co-recipient, a move that caused criticism and controversy.
However, Bell Burnell has received many honors and has had a very good career in physics. She is currently the president of the Institute of Physics and has received the highest honor bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II – with the title “Dame” in front of her name as well as “Doctor”: Dr. Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell is also Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
Did you know...?
Bell Burnell and her professor first called their discovery LGMs. That stood for “Little Green Men”!
Some scientists wondered (or teased?) that the regular pulses of electromagnetic radiation must be a message from intelligent aliens. However, after discovering more than a thousand similar pulsars, we are now almost positive that they are quickly-rotating neutron stars.
Are you puzzled about pulsars? Or are you a puzzle fan?
Either way, this NASA publication may be helpful and enjoyable for you to print out and use.
The universe is so amazingly beautiful, including these photos ...