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Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell FRS:oration

Read Dr Victoria Scowcroft's oration on Jocelyn Bell Burnell for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in July 2019.


Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a world-leading astronomer. Her work has advanced our understanding of topics ranging from fundamental physics to the most extreme and exotic systems in the Universe. Dame Jocelyn’s lifetime of scientific excellence, integrity, and advocacy make her an excellent role model for the students graduating with her today. Born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, Dame Jocelyn was educated at the Preparatory Department of Lurgan College and the Mount School in York. She gained a BSc in Natural Philosophy from the University of Glasgow in 1965 before moving to the University of Cambridge for her PhD, which she received in 1969.

As a PhD student at Cambridge in 1967, Dame Jocelyn made one of the most significant scientific advances of the 20th Century. While reviewing the results of her radio telescope observations, she noted some “scruff” in the data. After weeks of painstaking observations and analysis, Dame Jocelyn found that the “scruff” was indeed real. This regularly repeating signal wasn’t from Earth; it was the first observation ever made of a radio pulsar; an extremely dense, rotating star that was beaming radiation towards Earth once per second.

Dame Jocelyn’s discovery has had a profound and lasting impact, laying the foundation for many new fields of research. Her breakthrough was essential in confirming Einstein’s theory of general relativity and provided the foundation for gravitational wave research. The first detection of a gravitational wave signal was made only two years ago, almost 50 years after her first measurements of pulsars as a PhD student.

In addition to her excellent scientific work, Dame Jocelyn has held several prestigious positions throughout her career, not least as, Dean of Science here at the University of Bath from 2001 to 2004. She was President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, President of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010 and was the first woman to become President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2014.

Dame Jocelyn has long been recognised internationally as an outstanding scientist and leader. The prizes she has received are too numerous to list here but include the American Astronomical Society Beatrice Tinsley Prize, the Royal Astronomical Society Herschel Medal, the Royal Society Royal Medal, and the Institute of Physics President’s medal. Dame Jocelyn was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003. In 1999 she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to Astronomy and was promoted to Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2007.

In 2018, Dame Jocelyn was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, for “fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community”. Recognising that Physics is significantly unbalanced in terms of race and gender, and the unique perspective that members of under-represented groups bring to the field, Dame Jocelyn announced that she would be donating the $3-million prize funds to establish the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund. The scholarship provides funding for women, under-represented ethnic minorities, and refugee students to become Physics researchers.

The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship fund is just one example of Dame Jocelyn’s fierce advocacy for women and under-represented minorities in science. She was instrumental in establishing the Athena SWAN initiative, bringing equity and diversity principles to the forefront of our work here at Bath and Universities across the UK.

Vice Chancellor, I present to you Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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