First female chief for Royal Society of Edinburgh

The Royal Society, on Edinburgh's George Street. Picture: ComplimentaryThe Royal Society, on Edinburgh's George Street. Picture: Complimentary
The Royal Society, on Edinburgh's George Street. Picture: Complimentary
AN ASTROPHYSICIST credited with one of the 20th century’s most significant scientific discoveries is to become the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE).

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell will succeed Sir John Arbuthnott in October, after being elected by fellows of the 230-year-old society.

Dame Jocelyn discovered pulsars – or pulsating stars – while completing her PhD at Cambridge University in the late 1960s. However, there was controversy when she was left out of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish.

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The RSE, which was established in 1783, said its fellows had shown an “overwhelming response” in favour of Dame Jocelyn’s nomination.

Commenting on the election, Sir John said: “I am delighted to welcome Dame Jocelyn as my successor. Her scientific standing, her public profile and her great breadth of experience will greatly benefit the Royal Society of Edinburgh.”

Born in Northern Ireland in 1943, Dame Jocelyn graduated in natural philosophy from Glasgow University in 1965 before completing a PhD at Cambridge in 1969.

From 1982 to 1991 she worked at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, before being appointed Professor of Physics at the Open University. She has been a fellow of the RSE since 2004.

She said: “I look forward to serving the Royal Society of Edinburgh as its president from October this year. This will be an important time for Scotland as it finds its way forward following the referendum.”

Asked about the significance of a woman being elected to the role for the first time, she said: “The RSE doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned about that as an issue, but I have received a warm welcome. It’s always good for other women to see a woman in a position like this.”

Asked if the appointment of a woman was overdue, she added: “You could say that of almost every academy and society in the British Isles. [My election] is a sign of the continuing change in society in recent years.”

Dame Jocelyn said her role would have a broad remit to foster the arts and sciences as well as maintaining the RSE’s strong international contacts.

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“I will take up my role soon after the referendum, so it will be a strategic moment to stop and reflect on what Scotland needs from its national academy,” she said.

Currently visiting professor of astrophysics at Oxford, Dame Jocelyn’s research interests include neutron stars, micro quasars and gamma ray bursts. It is for the discovery of pulsars that she is best-known. Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars which are formed in supernova explosions. At the time of the discovery, Dame Jocelyn was a PhD student in radio astronomy. Her supervisor Antony Hewish went on to win the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of the discovery, sharing it with the head of the group, Martin Ryle.

Last year, Dame Jocelyn was named in the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour programme’s Power List of the 100 most influential women in the UK.

RSE history

WITH Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin among its founding fellows, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) was created by Royal Charter in 1783 at the time of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Its stated aim was for “the advancement of learning and useful knowledge” and today it describes itself as an educational charity.

While Dame Jocelyn is its first female president, men who have held the role include Sir Walter Scott and pioneering nineteenth-century lighthouse designer, Thomas Stevenson.

The RSE held its early meetings at Edinburgh University before moving to George Street in the capital in 1909.

There are currently more than 1,500 fellows of the society based in Scotland and further afield around the world.

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