Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

 1943 -

My astronomy and my Quakerism have grown up together and are comfortable bedfellows.

Burnell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1943 and grew up in Lurgan. At age 11, she failed the exam to get into an academically selective school, and was sent instead to the Mount, a Quaker School in York. She has described Lurgan Quaker Meeting as quite evangelical and the Mount as her first exposure to a more liberal stream of Quakerism.

The first flight of Sputnik helped inspire her interest in space, and she graduated with a degree in Physics in 1965. From there she went to take her PhD at Cambridge University in the then quite new field of radio astronomy – specifically, the search for quasars.

The first two years of her PhD were spent in muddy fields, helping to construct a telescope the size of 57 tennis courts. Once it began to gather data, the telescope generated 100 feet of printout per day, so after six months, Burnell had over 3 miles of paper to work through, distinguishing the typical signals of quasars from man-made interference. Then one day, she spotted a quarter inch of ‘smudge’ that kept reappearing in the same stretch of sky.

For a month, she tried running the printout at the faster speed, to stretch out the signal. Eventually she identified a small object, about 200 light years away and about 20 thousand miles across – much smaller than a star. It had a very regular pulse oscillating at one-and-a-third times per second, and was not decaying, which implied an object of hitherto unimaginable density.

At first, she jokingly nicknamed the signal LGM, for ‘little green men’. But then a second object of the same type was found, and then another two, demonstrating that these were in fact a new class of objects – pulsars – identified as the compressed core of massive stars that had exploded as supernova. Their discovery led the way to the first direct evidence in support of Einstein’s theory of gravity and was described by Dr Iosif Shklovsky as the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century.

In 1974, when Burnell’s supervisor was awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery, Burnell’s name was not mentioned. Many others have pointed out the injustice of this, but Burnell herself remains cheerfully resigned. 

You can actually do extremely well out of not getting a Nobel prize, and I have had so many prizes, and so many honours, and so many awards, that actually, I think I've had far more fun than if I'd got a Nobel Prize .

In other ways though, she admits having to battle with sexism through much of her career, and now tries to serve as a role model for younger women.

Burnell was made a dame in 2007. In 2008, she became the first ever female President of the Institute of Physics, a post she held until 2010. She was President of the Royal Astronomical Society between 2002 and 2004 and is currently (2015) Visiting Professor of Astrophysics in the University of Oxford and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Burnell is also a prominent and active Quaker. She delivered the Swarthmore Lecture Broken For Life at Yearly Meeting in Aberdeen in 1989. She was Clerk to Britain Yearly Meeting in 1995, 1996 and 1997, and served as Clerk of the Central Executive Committee of Friends World Committee for Consultation from 2008 to 2012.

In 2013, she gave the Backhouse Lecture in Canberra A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious? in which she expounded her own personal theology / cosmology.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 programme Beautiful Minds, Burnell said,

I find that Quakerism and research science fit together very, very well. In Quakerism you're expected to develop your own understanding of god from your experience in the world. There isn't a creed, and there isn't a dogma. There's an understanding but nothing as formal as a dogma or creed and this idea that you develop your own understanding also means that you keep redeveloping your understanding as you get more experience, and it seems to me that's very like what goes on in ‘the scientific method’.

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Further Reading and Credits

A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious? – James Backhouse lecture 2013 This can be found  on the website of Australian Quakers