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  • Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell speaks about how Pluto was declassified as a planet.
    Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell speaks about how Pluto was declassified as a planet.

Seeing Stars

April 06, 2015

“I think in the next 100 years we will have found evidence of life, maybe not intelligent life, but life on other planets.”

That bold prediction came in the Irish lilt of acclaimed astrophysicist Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell at the close of her final presentation for ASU’s 39th annual WTMA Distinguished Lectureship in Science Honoring Dr. Roy E. Moon in March. 

A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and a visiting professor of astrophysics at Oxford University in England, Bell Burnell delivered two lectures during her ASU visit—“Why (and How) Pluto is No More a Planet” and “The Last and the Next 100 Years in Astronomy.” 

Best known for helping discover pulsars (rapidly rotating neutron stars) in 1967, Bell Burnell initially had little specific interest in Pluto. But she now regularly lectures on the former planet after unexpectedly being heavily involved in the meeting of the International Astronomical Union that changed Pluto’s status to “dwarf planet” in 2006. 

“It turned out to be a very messy meeting, and I was brought in as a sort of facilitator,” Bell Burnell said. “So I actually facilitated the meeting that declassified Pluto. One of the reasons I was asked to be involved was that I have no interest in Pluto, but as a consequence of being involved, I learned a lot about Pluto. I’ve subsequently kept up with the status of Pluto and the discovery of other similar objects out beyond Pluto.” 

Though NASA’s New Horizons satellite will soon arrive near Pluto and begin providing more comprehensive data, Bell Burnell does not anticipate any change in the former planet’s status. 

“A lot of the work is funded by taxpayers’ taxes, so I think they deserve some feedback. But I’m also excited by astrophysics and I’d like to have other people excited by it, as well.”

Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

For her second public lecture, Bell Burnell detailed the great strides in astronomy made over the last 100 years, including space flight and exploration, the discovery of cosmic rays and the ability to study astronomical elements that are invisible to the human eye. But she also revealed another less-encouraging discovery. 

“If anything, in astrophysics, we actually seem to be going backwards,” Bell Burnell said. “When I started in the field 50 years ago, we thought we understood the universe pretty well. But nature has taught us otherwise in the intervening 50 years. So now we see that we understand remarkably little and that there are some very big unknowns, which I hope we’ll crack in the near future.” 

In addition to evidence of life on other planets, she also predicted astronomers will be able to utilize larger and more powerful telescopes and the revamped Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to get a better handle on the Dark Matter and Dark Energy that make up about 95 percent of the universe, but remain a mystery to current science. 

Dr. Bell Burnell met privately with ASU student scientists and faculty during her visit to campus in March.Dr. Bell Burnell met privately with ASU student scientists and faculty during her visit to campus in March.Also an outspoken advocate for improving the status of women in the sciences and for public science outreach, Bell Burnell also spoke to campus and public guests at dinner and luncheon events on campus and had a private meeting with a group of ASU student scientists. 

“For women in science, we’re heading in the right direction,” Bell Burnell said, “but certainly in Britain and, I suspect, in the U.S., the progress is pretty glacial. There is growing awareness of the issue in Britain because funders are now requiring universities or departments to demonstrate that they are ‘women friendly’ before they will be awarded a grant. If you attach money to something, it suddenly becomes more important, and that is bringing more focus to the issue.” 

“I also think it’s important,” she added, “that the public have an awareness of where science currently is, the science in this case being astronomy and astrophysics. A lot of the work is funded by taxpayers’ taxes, so I think they deserve some feedback. But I’m also excited by astrophysics and I’d like to have other people excited by it, as well.”

  • Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre is a news and information specialist at Angelo State University. 
    Email Tom at tom.nurre@angelo.edu.

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