Burnell was born Susan Jocelyn Bell in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1943, where her early interest in astronomy was cultivated by her parents and a local observatory. She got a degree in physics from the University of Glasgow before beginning doctoral studies at Cambridge University.
At Cambridge, she helped build and operate a radio telescope designed to track quasars (a type of galaxy core). Every few days, she had the task of analyzing the extensive data the telescope collected, looking for “blips” – and she found some – regularly pulsating signals that weren’t “background noise” but weren’t coming from quasars either.
She knew where they weren’t coming from but at first, she didn’t know where they were coming from, so she and her advisor, Anthony Hewish, nicknamed it L.G.M.-1 (“Little Green Men”). Instead of coming from aliens, however, the signals turned out to be coming from pulsars – rapidly rotating neutron stars related to black holes (when a giant start dies it can collapse into a black hole or a neutron star & pulsars are a type of neutron star that spin rapidly, giving off radiation that Bell detected).
Pulsars turned out to be very important – they’ve been used to help understand the laws of physics as well as served as navigation tools. Their discovery was announced in 1968, the same year she received her PhD and got married, taking on the name Burnell. She went on to teach several universities, continuing astrophysics research, but focusing on other forms of stars and radiation.
In 1974, Hewish and his colleague Martin Ryle were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the pulsar, but Burnell was not included. She was made a dame in 2007, served as the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, currently serves as a visiting professor at Oxford University, and was recently named Chancellor of the University of Dundee.
Photo Credit: University of Dundee