Prof Bell Burnell: “I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel Prize”

A leading British female astronomer will donate her prize money (£2.3 million) for her work on pulsars and a lifetime of inspiring leadership to the Institute of Physics. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a visiting Professor at Oxford University, was chosen to receive the special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics by a panel of scientists.

Helping to build a radio telescope at the Cavendish laboratory where she studied for her PhD, she was tasked with pouring over vast amounts of data. It was here that she spotted an unusual and faint signal – repeating pulses of radio waves. Finding herself studying in Cambridge “rather by accident”, Northern Ireland born Bell Burnell is anything but hubristic and upon hearing she had received the prize she commented: “I have to admit I was speechless”.

“It was a very, very small signal. It occupied about one part in 100,000 of the 3 miles of chart data that I had,” Bell Burnell said. “I noticed it because I was being really careful, really thorough, because of impostor syndrome.”

Pulsars The discovery of pulsars led to the Nobel Prize being awarded in 1974. However, while her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, received the accolade, she was overlooked.

“I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel Prize,” she commented. “If you get a Nobel Prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel Prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”

Her considerable prize winnings will go towards funding women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to enable them to become physics researchers. She believes that under-represented groups can and will bring new ideas to the field.

“A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student,” she said, “increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things”.

The science behind sticking to false beliefs

US-based University of California, Berkeley has conducted research, which found that it’s not hard evidence that makes us more confident in the new things we learn but feedback that heightens our sense of certainty.

The study was conducted at the University of Rochester and looked at what influences people’s certainty when they are learning. It found that the confidence of participants in the study was based on their most recent performance rather than long-term cumulative results.

This new research may shed some light on why people so steadfastly deny climate change, believe the world is flat, or even refute the Holocaust in the face of overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise.


UC Berkeley reports that developmental psychologists, publishing their findings in the journal Open Mind, have found that a: “person’s beliefs are more likely to be reinforced by the negative or positive reactions they receive in response to an opinion, task or interaction than by logic, reasoning, and scientific data”.

The research illuminates how people process information that goes against their worldview and potentially elucidates how certain learning habits may limit an individual’s cognitive horizons.

Dr Louis Marti, lead author of the study at UC Berkeley, said: “If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know.”

Celeste Kidd, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Study Senior at UC Berkeley, said: “If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information.”

Find out more about the research from the UC – Berkeley .

Could probiotics be doing more harm than good?

Research, published this month in the journal Cell, has found that probiotics may not be as beneficial as previously thought for peoples’ gut health.

Supplementing one’s diet with live bacteria, known as probiotic therapy, is a growing market and probiotics are one of the most commonly consumed dietary supplement.

Reasons for people using them range from the alleviation of IBS, promoting the immune system, protection against infectious disease and general promotion of wellbeing. However, there is still a lack of evidence to suggest they have a positive impact on our health.

pillsThe gut microbiome is a complex community of microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts. The researchers performed endoscopies and colonoscopies to study the gut microbiomes of people who took antibiotics before and after probiotic consumption. Another group was given samples of their own gut microbiomes collected before consuming antibiotics.

“Once the probiotics had colonised the gut, they completely inhibited the return of the indigenous microbiome, which was disrupted during antibiotic treatment,” said Eran Elinav, an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and lead author on the studies.

Those who had taken the probiotics also exhibited disturbed gene expression in their guts, with effects lasting for 6 months. However, Elinav commented, these negative effects were not observed in the group of people who were given back the original microbiome that had been collected before antibiotic use; their microbiome normalised within days.

“This tells us the currently used paradigm of one-size-fits-all probiotic preparation and treatment should be replaced by a tailored therapy, which harnesses science, measurement, and technology,” said Elinav “with this tailored approach probiotics have greater chances of being of benefit to health.”

Ultimately, more research is required, as the studies did not focus on the clinical effects of probiotics.

Written by Angharad Baldwin


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