Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell becomes second woman to win Copley Medal

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a pioneering astrophysicist, has been named the 2021 winner of the Royal Society’s esteemed Copley Medal, becoming the second woman in history to receive the award.

Dame Jocelyn joins 25 other Royal Society medals and award winners for 2021, who are being recognised for their remarkable research and contributions, including furthering quantum computing, transforming prenatal testing, and challenging racist pseudoscience.

The Copley Medal

The award that has been granted to Dame Jocelyn is the Copley Medal, is the Royal Society’s oldest and most prominent award. First awarded in 1731, it is understood to be the world’s oldest scientific prize, having been awarded 170 years prior to the first Nobel Prize. It is awarded for exceptional accomplishments in scientific research, and its notable recipients include Benjamin Franklin, Dorothy Hodgkin, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS is a respected astrophysicist known for her trailblazing research in the field. It is her novel research as a 24-year-old radio astronomy graduate student, which led to the breakthrough discovery of pulsars – one of the most significant astronomical discoveries in the 20th century – that has earned her the Copley award.

Despite the significant work done by Dame Jocelyn in the spectacular discovery of pulsars, and the subsequent research she undertook in observing, analysing and understanding pulsars, she was overlooked for the Nobel prize for physics in 1974, which instead of going to the Dame, was awarded to her male PhD supervisor.

Not being set back by this, she has become a significant promoter for women and the marginalised in the scientific community, going on to work in gamma-ray, X-ray, infrared and millimetre wavelength astronomy, and she currently holds a Professorial Fellowship in Mansfield College, University of Oxford, and is a Visiting Academic in the University’s Department of Physics. As well as this, she is the Chancellor of the University of Dundee.

Her other notable awards include the Michael Faraday Prize in 2010 and a Royal Medal in 2015 by the Royal Society. She was the first female President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as well as of the Institute of Physics.

Making history

Dame Jocelyn has become the second woman ever to be awarded this prestigious medal. Commenting on winning the prize, she said: “I am delighted to be the recipient of this year’s Copley Medal, a prize which has been awarded to so many incredible scientists.

“With many more women having successful careers in science, and gaining recognition for their transformational work, I hope there will be many more female Copley winners in the near future.

“My career has not fitted a conventional – male – pattern. Being the first person to identify pulsars would be the highlight of any career; but I have also swung sledgehammers and built radio telescopes; set up a successful group of my own studying binary stars, and was the first female president of the Institute of Physics and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

“I hope that my work and presence as a senior woman in science continues to encourage more women to pursue scientific careers”.

The medal comes with a prize of £25,000, a gift that Dame Jocelyn will bestow to the Institute of Physics’ Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, providing grants to graduate students from under-represented groups in physics.

Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, added: “Through its medals and awards the Royal Society recognises those researchers and science communicators who have played a critical part in expanding our understanding of the world around us.”

“From advancing vaccine development to catching the first glimpses of distant pulsars, these discoveries shape our societies, answer fundamental questions and open new avenues for exploration.

“On behalf of the Royal Society, I congratulate each of our award winners and thank them for their work.”


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