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Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell: An Accidental Discovery

On Wednesday 23rd October we welcomed Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell to the Open University to continue our series of talks celebrating 50 years of The Open University. Jocelyn spoke to a sell-out audience in the Berrill Lecture Theatre about her ‘accidental’ discovery of pulsars whilst a graduate student working in radio astronomy at Cambridge University, a discovery for which her supervisor received a Nobel prize. She then spoke about her scientific life since, and some of the other major achievements of her career. We had a lively question and answer session at the end where we even discovered that she deems her ‘greatest achievement’ to have been the founding of the Athena Swan programme, and not the discovery of pulsars as we had all been expecting.

Jocelyn was the first female Professor of Physics at The Open University but has a string of prestigious honours to her name including being Elected fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002-2004, The first female President of the Institute of Physics in 2008, Awarded a CBE in 1999 and was appointed Dame in 2007. In 2016 she became the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh its 230-year history and she helped set-up the Athena Swan programme, which is widely credited with improving the lives of women in academia.

Jocelyn was awarded the breakthrough prize in 2018 for her pulsar discovery and she chose to donate the £2.3 million prize money to a fund to help women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to undertake postgraduate study.

In her words, she explains her decision, " A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a phD student....Increasing the diversity in Physics could lead to all sorts of good things."

You can see a recording of Jocelyn’s talk, ‘An Accidental Discovery’ here.