Growing up in a Quaker household, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was raised to believe that she had as much right to an education as anyone else. But as a girl in the 1940s in Northern Ireland, her enthusiasm for the sciences was met with hostility from teachers and male students.
Undeterred, she went on to study radio astronomy at Glasgow University, where she was the only woman in many of her classes.
In 1967, Burnell made a discovery that altered our perception of the universe. As a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University assisting the astronomer Anthony Hewish, she discovered pulsars — compact, spinning celestial objects that give off beams of radiation, like cosmic lighthouses. (A visualization of some early pulsar data is immortalized as the album art for Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures.”)
But as Ben Proudfoot’s “The Silent Pulse of the Universe” shows, the world wasn’t yet ready to accept that a breakthrough in astrophysics could have come from a young woman.