Reaching for the Stars

Chemistry students Frank Fan ’23 and John Feng ’20 attended a special presentation on November 8 at The University of Connecticut, Storrs, featuring Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell of the University of Oxford, the 2019 Distinguished Katzenstein Lecturer. The students were accompanied on the field trip by faculty member Paul Gonzalez.

Bell Burnell is world renowned for co-discovering the first type of stars known as pulsars in 1967, when she was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. Her discovery was recognized by a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, which was actually awarded to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, as well as to astronomer Martin Ryle.

In 2018 Bell Burnell was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which included an award of $3 million. Only four such prizes have been awarded, including one to Stephen Hawking, UConn said.

"In the post-World War II era, radio astronomy took off as the main field of inquiry in astronomy and radar scientists turned their dishes to the sky," Gonzalez said, "Among them, a research student called Jocelyn Bell. After examining the data and without the help of computers, Bell noticed an unusual pulsing signal coming from a section in the sky. At first thought to be signals of communication sent by intelligent life forms, it was soon explained to be a fast rotating neutron star. Neutron stars are rapidly rotating, small and very dense stars with strong electromagnetic fields."

“As a fun fact, Professor Bell Burnell shared with us that if it was possible to squeeze the entire population of planet Earth inside a thimble, the resulting density may be comparable to the density of a neutron star,” Gonzalez said. "Also, she informed us that the fastest rotation of a neutron star has been found to be 716 rotations per second. Pulsars are truly incredible objects in our mysterious universe, and it was an honor to have had the opportunity to meet Professor Bell Burnell."

The full lecture is available for viewing on UConn's YouTube Channel.