Astrophysicist to speak at Te Manawa

00:00, Jun 04 2014

A woman who made a significant astrophysics discovery, and was allegedly robbed of a Nobel Prize, is coming to Palmerston North.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is speaking at Te Manawa this month.

She was the first person to observe radio pulsars - highly magnetised, rotating neutron stars that emit electromagnetic radiation.

In fact, she discovered the first four while she was a postgraduate research student in the 1960s.

The pulsars can only be seen when they are pointing their beam of radiation at Earth, giving them a pulse-like appearance.

They have since been used to make maps of where Earth sits in the solar system, to make extremely precise clocks and to search for gravitational pulls in space.


But while she discovered them, her supervisor Antony Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, together with fellow astronomer Martin Ryle, for the discovery.

The snub caused outrage in the astronomical community, and many people say she made the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century.

Bell Burnell overcame that slight to have a successful astronomy career.

She worked at various universities, including the University College of London, University of Southampton, Princeton University in the United States, University of Bath and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.

She is now the visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and was president of the institute of physics from 2008 to 2010.

When she was knighted for her services to astronomy in 2007, The Guardian in Britain said it went some way towards righting the wrong of her missing out on the Nobel Prize.

Since retiring, she has travelled the world telling people about science.

Massey University philosophy tutor Dr Stephen Chadwick said Bell Burnell, from Northern Ireland, was in the country to speak at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand conference.

"I just called her while she was in New Zealand and asked if she could come down to give a talk."

He said he expected a good turnout as her research had spawned many more discoveries, and the story behind the Nobel Prize for her supervisor was also interesting.

Bell Burnell will speak at Te Manawa on June 11 from 6.30pm.

Manawatu Standard