Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell takes your questions!

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BBC Radio 4 describes Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell's discovery of pulsars as "one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the twentieth century," and National Geography describes her as the person "who found the most useful stars in the universe." We're honoured that Dame Jocelyn has spoken to us at the Burnet News Club. Here's an introduction to her life and work, in her own words:

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell inadvertently discovered pulsars as a graduate student in radio astronomy in Cambridge, opening up a new branch of astrophysics. She has subsequently worked in many roles in many branches of astronomy, working part-time while raising a family. She is now an Academic Visitor in Oxford, and Chancellor of the University of Dundee.

Photo Courtesy of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE)


Can you tell us more about your discovery?

involved_grapefruit, Birchwood C of E Primary School

It was an accidental discovery, not a planned part of the project. It happened because I was being very careful, very thorough. I noticed a curious ‘squiggle’ on a paper chart. This squiggle appeared typically for just 1 minute in a week. I wanted to understand what this was – it might have been a sign that the equipment was misbehaving and that I needed to do some repairs urgently. It turned out that the equipment was fine and the squiggle was produced by a new, totally unexpected kind of star, now called a pulsar. (you can find out more about this discovery here! - Tom)


How far do you think space goes?

logical_fact, Braiswick Primary School

Space is probably infinite (no end), but we know that it goes at least 14 thousand million light years (and a light year is almost 6 million million miles).


Do we know what the universe is expanding into?

patient_parrot and brilliant_blackberry, Noel Park School

No, we don’t know what the universe is expanding into, and since it (whatever it is) is outside our universe we probably can never know.


How is the gravity in space different to that on Earth?

Original_significance, Upton Cross Primary School

Gravity in space is the same thing as here on Earth, but its strength may be different. If you were close to a big, heavy body (like a star or planet) you’d feel strong gravity, but mostly in space you are far away from anything so the strength of gravity is much weaker.


Can you explain how black holes are made?

Appreciate_hurricane, Hammond Junior School

Black holes are usually made when too much stuff is crammed into a very small space. The strength of the gravity from all those things is so great that it prevents light from getting out, and so you cannot see a black hole – it does not shine – it is black!


I noticed a curious ‘squiggle’ on a paper chart. This squiggle appeared typically for just 1 minute in a week. I wanted to understand what this was

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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