Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Who Discovered Pulsars, Was Just Awarded $3 Million for Her Work—More Than 40 Years After Nobel Prize Snub

Silicon Republic, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Silicon Republic, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Jocelyn Bell Burnell's story is an unfortunately familiar one: She changed the field of astrophysics with her discovery of pulsars in 1967, only for her work to be credited to a man when the Nobel Prize was awarded for that very achievement in 1974. Now, decades later, this part of Bell Burnell's career has received the happy ending that many overlooked female scientists never get. As The Guardian reports, the astrophysicist has been awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her work.

Pulsars, incredibly dense neutron stars that release powerful pulses of radio waves, went undetected until 1967, when Bell Burnell spotted one using a radio telescope she had helped build as a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University. Intrigued by the unusual bit of data, she returned to the observatory to see if she could spot the repetitive beams of radio waves once more. After about a month of watching the same part of the sky closely, the signals resurfaced.

She shared her discovery with Antony Hewish, her Ph.D. supervisor at the time. He initially dismissed the waves as manmade radio interference, but eventually Bell Burnell was able to convince him—and the rest of the science community—that the strange pulses were emitted by stars. The breakthrough shook the world of astrophysics, and even secured the Nobel Prize in 1974. But when it came time to announce the award, Hewish received all of the recognition and Bell Burnell was ignored.

The snub hardly marked the end of Bell Burnell's career. She's since been named the first female president of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and she helped found the Athena SWAN program, a charter that works to recognize and advance the careers of women working in STEM fields in either academic or research-based positions.

The latest institution to honor her, the Breakthrough Prize, is currently the most lucrative science prize in the world. In the past it has honored achievements in fundamental physics, including the discovery of the Higgs boson particle and gravitational waves. Jocelyn Bell Burnell plans to donate her $3 million in prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund Ph.D educations for students underrepresented in her field.

[h/t The Guardian]

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

Astronomers Want Your Help Naming the Largest Unnamed Dwarf Planet in the Universe

iStock.com/jgroup
iStock.com/jgroup

Part of the fun of becoming involved in science is naming things. Entomologists are notorious for branding new species of insects with fanciful names, like the Star Wars fans who labeled apoid wasps Polemistus chewbacca and Polemistus yoda. Sometimes scientists invite the public’s opinion, as in the 2016 petition by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council to have internet users name a polar research ship. They dubbed it Boaty McBoatFace. (That choice was overruled, and the ship is now known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough.)

Now, astronomers are looking to outsource the name of a dwarf planet. But the catch is that there’s no write-in ballot.

The planet, currently known as (225088) 2007 OR10, was discovered in 2007 in the Kuiper Belt orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune and may have a rocky, icy surface with a reddish tint due to methane present in the ice. It's bigger than two other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt—Haumea and Makemake—but smaller than Pluto and Eris.

The three astronomers involved in its identification—Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz of Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California—are set to submit possible names for the dwarf planet to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). They’ve narrowed the choices down to the following: Gongong, Holle, and Vili.

Gonggong, a Mandarin word, references a Chinese water god who is reputed to have visited floods upon the Earth. Holle is a German fairy tale character with Yuletide connotations, and Vili is a Nordic deity who defeated a frost giant.

The team is accepting votes on the planet’s website through 2:59 EDT on May 11. The winning name will be passed on to the IAU for final consideration.

[h/t Geek.com]

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