The upsides of not winning a Nobel Prize

Pulsars are rapidly-spinning searchlights in space.
Pulsars are rapidly-spinning searchlights in space.
Image: Reuters
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Astrophysicist dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has had reason to be miffed. She was passed up for the Nobel Prize in physics in 1974.

It was awarded instead to her former PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, for the discovery of pulsars: highly magnetized, rapidly spinning neutron stars—some of the universe’s smallest, densest celestial objects. But Bell Burnell was actually the one who discovered them, when she was a student at Cambridge University in 1967.

She’s never complained about the snub, however. “I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize,” she told the Guardian this week. “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.”

Indeed, praise keeps on rolling in for the good-natured scientist. On Sept. 6, Bell Burnell learned she won the Special Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics, an honor she shares with the likes of Stephen Hawking. The $3 million award is funded by tech moguls and wealthy scientists, such as Google’s Sergey Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and physicist and venture capitalist Yuri Milner.

The prize committee calls its award the “Oscars of Science,” and the Breakthrough does seem like the newer, sexier, wealthier cousin of the Nobel, celebrated at a televised gala in Silicon Valley attended by pop music and movie stars, along with scientists. Last year’s celebrity presenters included musicians Wiz Khalifa and Nana Ou-Yang; actors Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Cameron Diaz, and Morgan Freeman; and filmmaker Ron Howard.

The Breakthrough prize has been awarded since 2012. The prize in fundamental physics honors an individual or group of physicists who make a significant contribution to human knowledge. It’s open to theoretical, mathematical, and experimental physicists “working on the deepest mysteries of the universe,” according to the prize’s website, and was founded by Milner. The special prize in fundamental physics—unlike the Breakthrough prizes’ other physics awards—is not tied to a recent discovery and can be awarded at any time, which is why Bell Burnell’s 1967 discovery and subsequent contributions to science qualified.  

“Bell Burnell receives the Prize for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community,” the Breakthrough awards committee wrote in a statement. Finding pulsars a half century ago, the committee wrote, was one of the biggest surprises in the history of modern astronomy, “transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way.”

Prior to Bell Burnell’s discovery, these neutron stars were predicted by scientists, but there was no evidence of their existence. Her work led to further findings, including ways of testing Einstein’s theory of relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of heavy elements in the universe.

“Professor Bell Burnell thoroughly deserves this recognition. Her curiosity, diligent observations, and rigorous analysis revealed some of the most interesting and mysterious objects in the universe,” Milner said in a statement.

Indeed, the astrophysicist was rigorous. But it was not because she thought she’d make a major contribution to human knowledge. Quite the contrary. She told the Guardian that she only discovered pulsars because she had “impostor syndrome.”

By her own account, Bell Burnell was so worried she didn’t have what it took to be a great scientist—and even thought she might get kicked out of Cambridge—that she started to pay extra-close attention to the data she was analyzing from a new radio telescope at the school’s Cavendish Laboratory. Her care led to the discovery of a faint but persistent pulse of radio waves every 1.5 seconds in these data. At first, her adviser dismissed the signals as man-made. But months of data collection and patient observation led her to confirm what she first suspected: she’d found the first evidence of neutron stars, considered to be some of the most exotic objects in the universe.

“The pulses were so regular, so much like a ticking clock, that Bell and her supervisor Anthony Hewish couldn’t believe it was a natural phenomenon,” explains NASA phycisist Zaven Arzoumanian in an article published on the agency’s website. “Once they found a second, third, and fourth they started to think differently.” Now, scientists have identified some 2,000 pulsars.

Pulsars are sometimes likened to celestial lighthouses. From afar, these super-dense, spinning neutron stars look like they’re twinkling the same as typical stars, due to the distortion in their light created by variations in the temperature and density of the Earth’s atmosphere. But they aren’t stars—in fact, they’re more like corpses of extra large stars that have died.

Pulsars are relatively compact objects but contain more mass than the sun; they are members of the neutron star family. Neutron stars form when an especially large star (four to eight times as massive as our sun) runs out of fuel in its core and collapses onto itself. The stellar death causes an explosion called a supernova; and neutron stars are the remnants, dense nuggets of material left after the explosion, like skeletons of the celestial objects. And the reason pulsars seem to flicker doesn’t have anything to do with atmospheric distortion—instead, pulsars emit two steady beams of light in opposite directions, and only appear to be blinking because they are also spinning steadily.  

What makes pulsars special is that they are neutron stars that emit gravitational waves. That enables scientists to use them to study extreme states of matter, search for planets beyond the solar system, and to measure cosmic distances, among other things.

Meanwhile, since her student days, Bell Burnell has taught astronomy, worked at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and became the first female leader of both the Institute of Physics, a London-based charity organization that advances physics education, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of science and letters. She’s currently a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

The award winner says she plans to donate her prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD tuition fees for people underrepresented in the field—students who, much like Bell Burnell 50 years ago, may feel like imposters, though they have a lot to offer.