Visiting star at college

THE physics class at Lurgan College had an experience to remember this week when former pupil Jocelyn Bell Burnell popped her head round the door.

For although the name may not be familiar to many, the retired astrophysicist was one of a team which discovered pulsars leading to the opening up of a new branch of astrophysics and a Nobel Prize for her supervisor.

Jocelyn, a native of Lurgan, was at the college on Tuesday for a trip down memory lane as part of a documentary being made about her life and achievements for BBC NI.

Called ‘Northern Star’, and due to be shown in the autumn, the documentary is being made by Dublin-based production company Independent Pictures, who were recording the professor’s return home to Lurgan as part of the documentary.

Born at Solitude on the Kilmore Road in Lurgan, Jocelyn is the daughter of the late Philip and Allison Bell who now lives in a nursing home in Belfast. “My mother was a town councillor for a while and I remember going to the town library a lot as this was one of her areas of responsibility and during that time I got involved in cataloguing work,” said Jocelyn.

“My father was an architect on the Armagh Planetarium and I remember that building well too.” Perhaps the young Jocelyn got some of her fascination for stars back then, and as part of the documentary, she revisits this old haunt too.

Back at Lurgan College, headmaster Trevor Robinson was able to show Jocelyn her entry in the school records book. She enrolled in the Prep Department on September 6, 1948 and attended the college until July 1956. She then went on to study at York Grammar School, after which she gained a degree in physics from Glasgow University and then a PhD at Cambridge University in Radio Astronomy.

Discovery

It was while she was working as a graduate student at Cambridge that she was involved in the discovery of pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars which give off signals detectable on earth. Professor Bell Burnell discovered the pulsars when she noticed some unusual marking on chart paper from a radio telescope she was operating.

During her distinguished career she has been awarded a number of prizes in the US and UK, including the Oppenheimer Prize, and UK and US universities have conferred honorary doctorates on her. She was made a CBE in 1999.

Addressing the pupils at Lurgan College Professor Bell Burnell admitted that she had actually failed her 11 plus exam, but wanted to get across the message that failing one exam was not the end of the road. “I wanted to tell the pupils that there are ways of recovering a situation, and they seem a pretty bright lot here anyway,” said the professor.

Jocelyn and the production team arrived in Lurgan after a hectic few days filming in Marble Strand in Donegal where she spent many days on holiday as a child with her family. “It’s such a whistle stop tour I haven’t had much time to spend in Lurgan itself,” said Jocelyn. “But it all still seems very familiar. I was here a year ago and the main street hasn’t changed very much at all.”