top of page
Latest News Photo.jpg
Latest News

Famous Astrophysicist Visits Our Lady’s

The Science Department was delighted, and privileged, to welcome astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell to Our Lady’s on Tuesday last. Dame Jocelyn achieved worldwide fame for her discovery of pulsars, while still a student at Cambridge University in England. Pulsars, which had never been seen before, seemed to emit very regular pulses of radiation – hence the name. It turned out these pulsars were fast spinning neutron stars. The discovery was deemed by many as being one of the most important of the twentieth century in astronomy.  It merited a Nobel prize for Physics – but it was not given to Jocelyn! Controversially, the award was given that year to her supervisor and another male Physicist. Many believe that it was because she was a woman.

Jocelyn grew up in Co. Armagh and was to experience bias against women in science at an early stage in her education. In her secondary school, boys were directed towards science and technical subjects, whereas the girls were excluded from these subjects and given cookery and needlework. Her parents’ outrage led to a change in school policy. Even when she had made her famous discovery, the media asked her male supervisor about the scientific details, whereas she had to answer questions about the number of boyfriends she’d had, her bust size, the colour of her hair!

She completed her secondary education in a school in England, where she could study Physics and ‘loved it’. Then it was on to the University of Glasgow for her primary degree and Cambridge University for her doctorate. Again, she was to question her own ability as a woman in the face of an overwhelmingly male student population, wondering if she would be ‘thrown out’.

The main thrust of her talk, then, to second year students concerned the representation of women in science, particularly Physics and Astronomy. The numbers are improving, but men significantly outnumber women in most STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects in university. There is no reason why this should be the case, as women are equally competent in these areas. So, her message to the girls present was that if they have a liking and aptitude for STEM, then ‘go for it’.

Space here would not permit listing the numerous awards achieved by Dame Jocelyn throughout her illustrious career, but we will just mention one. In 2018 she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. The award came with $3 million of prize money. She decided to use this prize money to help female, minority and refugee students to become research Physicists. This was the mark of a very generous person who also impressed us with her friendliness, humility and passionate support for women in science.


bottom of page