Scientist Passed Over for Nobel Wins $3M, Donates It

The prize money will go to foster diversity in physics
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 6, 2018 4:21 PM CDT
Scientist Passed Over for Nobel Wins $3M Accolade
The International Space Station.   (AP Photo/NASA/European Space Agency ESA. Keystone)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a PhD student at Cambridge University some five decades ago when she made an astronomical discovery while reviewing data from a radio telescope: faint, repeating pulses of radio waves. These signals came to be known as pulsars, a type of neutron star described by Scientific American as "a city-sized collapsed core of a massive sun that is made of degenerate matter and throws off lighthouse-like beams of radio waves." The discovery was a leap forward: It pointed to the existence of black holes, provided evidence for gravitational waves, and much more. It also yielded a 1974 Nobel Prize—but not for Bell Burnell. Instead, the prize went to Antony Hewish, Bell Burnell's PhD supervisor, the Guardian reports.

Bell Burnell's exclusion from the Nobel Prize has been cited as proof of sexism in astronomy. But, since then, Bell Burnell has won plenty of other accolades. "I feel I've done very well out of not getting a Nobel Prize," she tells the Guardian. "If you get the Nobel Prize you have this fantastic week and nobody gives you anything else. If you don't get the Nobel Prize, you get everything that moves. That's much more fun." And in November, Bell Burnell will receive another honor: the Breakthrough Prize, a $3 million award funded by Silicon Valley types, such as Mark Zuckerberg. She "thoroughly deserves this recognition," says Yuri Milner, who founded the Breakthrough Prize, per SA, adding that she "revealed one of the most interesting objects in the universe." Bell Burnell says she'll give the prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund graduate scholarships for groups that are underrepresented in physics, per the AP. (Read more astronomy stories.)

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