One of the great misconceptions of science is that great discoveries start with a “Eureka!”.
More often than not, great discoveries start instead with a “that’s funny/odd/strange, I wonder what’s going on here”. And that’s what happened to Bell Burnell. She and her graduate supervisor, Antony Hewish, built a radio telescope to observe strange objects in distant galaxies known as quasars. It printed the data as a line (using red ink) across ~100 feet of paper per day. And in pouring over that data, Bell noticed something strange: “an unclassifiable squiggle”
The squiggle was soon identified as pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit radiation. Finding them is considered one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. So much so that it won a Nobel Prize… for Bell’s advisor.
However, she gets the last laugh: 50 years after the “unclassified squiggle” in red ink, her discovery has earned her a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which comes with a check for $3 million. Dr. Burnell is donating her prize winnings to the U.K.’s Institute of Physics, where they will fund graduate scholarships for people from under-represented groups to study physics.
“I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it,” she told the BBC, adding that she wants to use the money to counter the “unconscious bias” that she says happens in physics research jobs.
The astrophysicist noted there has been an upside to the Nobel snub all those years ago.
“I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize,” she told the Guardian. “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.”
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