British astrophysicist overlooked by Nobels wins $3m award for pulsar work

A British astrophysicist who was passed over for the Nobel prize for her discovery of exotic cosmic objects that light up the heavens has won the most lucrative award in modern science.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a visiting professor at Oxford University, was chosen by a panel of leading scientists to receive the $3m (£2.3m) special Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for her landmark work on pulsars and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.


astrophysicist Dame-Jocelyn-Bell-Burnell
Photograph: DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock


She will be handed the award at a glittering Silicon Valley gala in November where previous winners have mingled, at times rather awkwardly, with celebrities such as Kate Beckinsale,, Cameron Diaz and Morgan Freeman.

“I have to admit I was speechless,” Bell Burnell said about hearing she had won. “This had never entered my wildest dreams. I was totally taken aback.”

Bell Burnell was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, in 1943, and after spells in York and Glasgow arrived in Cambridge “rather by accident” to pursue a PhD at the university’s Cavendish laboratory. While poring over literally miles of data from a new radio telescope she helped to build, she spotted a faint and unusual signal: repeating pulses of radio waves.

“It was a very, very small signal. It occupied about one part in 100,000 of the three miles of chart data that I had,” Bell Burnell said. “I noticed it because I was being really careful, really thorough, because of impostor syndrome.”

Impostor syndrome strikes when people doubt their own achievements and develop a deep sense that they will be outed as a fraud. In Bell Burnell’s case the condition manifested as a fear she would be thrown out of Cambridge: “I’m a bit of a fighter, so I decided that until they threw me out I would work my very hardest. Then, when the time came, I wouldn’t have a guilty conscience. I’d know I had done my best.”

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