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Reading Astronomy News: Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the $3 Million Breakthrough Prize

by Stacy Palen.

In September of 2018, Jocelyn Bell Burnell won a $3 million prize in recognition of her outstanding discovery of pulsars. This article presents an opportunity to link science and society while recalling and applying information about radio telescopes, the motion of the sky, and pulsars.

Article: https://www.npr.org/2018/09/06/645257118/in-1974-they-gave-the-nobel-to-her-supervisor-now-shes-won-a-3-million-prize

Questions for Students:

  1. It may be difficult to visualize the data Bell Burnell was taking from the radio telescope. The chart recorder used to record the data is very similar to a seismometer, a machine that records earthquakes. The radio telescope chart recorder scrolled through 96 feet of paper every day. How much paper did Bell Burnell use for the month of observations between when the blip vanished and when it returned?

    Answer: 30 days * 96 feet per day = 2,880 ft

  2. Why did Hewish think the signal must be man-made?

    Answer: He thought it must be a man-made radio interference because the signal disappeared and then reappeared.

  3. Bell Burnell figured out the signals were coming from space. What observation about the pulses led her to that conclusion?

    Answer: Bell Burnell observed that the source moved at the same speed as the stars.

  4. Prior to Bell Burnell’s discovery, astronomers thought that neutron stars might not be observable. Why might neutron stars be difficult to observe?

    Answer: Neutron stars might be difficult to observe because they are incredibly small. Even if they are very hot, they will not be very bright.

  5. What is it about Bell Burnell’s discovery that earned her the Breakthrough Prize?

    Answer: No one had ever dreamed that an object could act in this way.

  6.  Some people in the scientific community see this award as righting a long-standing wrong. Does Bell Burnell see it that way?

    Answer: No, actually. She seems to be perfectly fine with it. But then, she’s giving all the prize money to promote diversity and fight unconscious bias. So maybe she’s just being graceful.

  7. According to Bell Burnell, why did she not receive the Nobel Prize in 1974?

    Answer: Bell Burnell says that at that time, the committee was not awarding early career scientists.

  8. Do you think that was a fair decision of the Nobel committee?

    Answers will vary.

Share your own questions in the comments!

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