Physicist donates £2.3 million prize to boost diversity in science

Physicist donates £2.3 million prize to boost diversity…

Britain’s leading female astronomer wins a £2m prize for her work on neutron stars, but says she’s giving it all away to boost diversity in science

  • Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded the lucrative Breakthrough Prize
  • The accolade was awarded for her work on rotating neutron stars called ‘pulsars’
  • Dame Burnell has confirmed plans to donate the prize money to establish research studentships for people from under-represented groups 
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A leading British astrophysicist has won a £2.3 million ($3 million) science prize – but says she will be donating her ‘shocking’ winnings to boost diversity in her field.

The prize fund will be used to establish research studentships for people from under-represented groups in physics. 

It was donated by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was awarded the lucrative Breakthrough Prize for her work on highly dense stars, known as pulsars.

The 75-year-old said she does not need the financial reward, and hoped it will be used to support female and ethnic minority physicists.

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Astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell has been awarded the £2.3 million Breakthrough Prize ($3 million) for her work on highly dense stars called pulsars. She says the money will be used to establish research studentships for people from under-represented groups

BREAKTHROUGH PRIZES 

The Breakthrough Prizes recognise the contributions of the world’s top scientists.

The Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin, Pony Ma, Yuri and Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Anne Wojcicki.

Each prize is £2.23 million ($3 million) and awarded in the fields of Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics.

In addition, up to three New Horizons in Physics and up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes are given out to early-career researchers each year.  

Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates choose the winners.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said: ‘I think diversity is very important and I hope this might increase the diversity a bit.

‘One of the under-represented groups in physics is women, so that is one that interests me.

‘But groups with various ethnicities could well be included, it would be wonderful if we could find a refugee or two.’

Dame Jocelyn was overlooked for the Nobel Prize – with senior male colleagues involved in the work on pulsars awarded the honour in 1974.

She said the money will go to London’s Institute of Physics to launch research studentships that address workforce diversity imbalances in her field.

According to the Women in Science and Engineering (Wise) campaign, women make up just 13 per cent of the science, technology and engineering and medical research (STEM) workforce.

Race For Opportunity, a group committed to improving the employment opportunities, says less than one in five undergraduate students taking STEM subjects is from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background.

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Originally from Northern Ireland, Dame Jocelyn said her background had pushed her to work harder at university.

Her work included the discovery of pulsars, a form of rotating neutron star that emits pulses of electromagnetic radiation as it spins in space.

‘In the late 60s, early 70s, when all this was happening, science was very male dominated and, in Britain, white male dominated,’ she said.


As a research student in 1974 Dame Jocelyn was overlooked for the Nobel Prize, which was instead awarded to senior male colleagues involved in the work on pulsars – highly dense, rotating stars that form from the dying embers of other stars

‘I came in as a female and came into Cambridge from the north and west of the UK – I had never been that far south before.

‘I was really scared, I thought they had made a mistake admitting me, reckoned they were going to throw me out in due course.

‘But I decided to work my very hardest so that when they threw me out I wouldn’t have a guilty conscience and I was being incredibly thorough.’

Asked if she felt she should have been awarded the Nobel, she said ‘they don’t often give the Nobel Prize to students’ and ‘it’s perceived as a senior man’s prize’.


Pulsars (artist’s impression) are essentially rotating, highly magnatised neutron stars. These stars are made of matter much more densely packed than normal and which give the entire star a density comparable to an atomic nucleus

The Breakthrough Prizes recognise the contributions of the world’s top scientists.

The awards were founded by Israeli-Russian entrepreneur and former physicist Yuri Milner in July 2012.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Chinese business magnate Pony Ma, facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki all joined the scheme the following year.

Each prize is £2.23 million ($3 million) and awarded in the fields of Life Sciences, Mathematics, and Fundamental Physics – which Dame Jocelyn won.

Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates choose the latest winners. 

WHAT ARE PULSARS?

Pulsars are essentially rotating, highly magnatised neutron stars.

These stars are made of matter much more densely packed than normal and which give the entire star a density comparable to an atomic nucleus.

The diameter of our sun would shrink to less than 18 miles if it was that dense. 

These neutron stars also have extremely strong magnetic fields which accelerate charged particles.

These give off radiation in a cone shaped beam which sweep across the sky like the light from a lighthouse as the star rotates.

When the beam sweeps over earth, it becomes visible as a pulsar, producing light that cycles every few seconds to just a few milliseconds.

Their rotational period is so stable that some astronomers use it to calibrate instruments and have proposed using it to synchronise clocks.

British astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first person to discover a pulsar in 1967 when she spotted a radio pulsar.

Since then other types of pulsars that emit x-rays and gamma rays have also been spotted. 

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