Fifty Years Ago, a Grad Student’s Discovery Changed the Course of Astrophysics

By identifying the first pulsars, Jocelyn Bell Burnell set the stage for discoveries in black holes and gravitational waves

By Lorraine Boissoneault

The dipole array telescope—a mass of wires and poles stretched across an area the size of 57 tennis courts—took Cambridge University students more than two years to build. But after the telescope was finished in July 1967, it took only a few weeks for graduate student Jocelyn Bell Burnell to detect something that would upend the field of astronomy.

The giant net-like telescope produced enough data to fill 700 feet of paper each week. By analyzing this, Bell Burnell noticed a faint, repetitive signal that she called “scruff”— a regular string of pulses, spaced apart by 1.33 seconds. With help from her supervisor Antony Hewish, Bell Burnell was able to capture the signal again later that fall and winter.

The signal looked like nothing any astronomer had ever seen before. Yet before long, Bell Burnell discovered more little beacons out there, just like the first but pulsing at different speeds in different parts of the sky.

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