The sky’s the limit for new president

Dame Jocelyn is the first female president of the RSE. Picture: AP

Dame Jocelyn is the first female president of the RSE. Picture: AP

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A distinguished astrophysicist has been elected as the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE, FRS, FRSE, who was involved in one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century will succeed the current President, Sir John Arbuthnott MRIA.

Dame Jocelyn first came to Edinburgh in 1982, where she began her work at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory. She stayed until 1991, and took up a role as Professor of Physics at the Open University.

In 2004 she became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of science and the arts which has been based in George Street, since 1783. Dame Jocelyn was elected president by a ballot of all RSE fellows.

The newly elected Dame Jocelyn talked about her excitement over her new role in Edinburgh. 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.”

She will take up her post in October for a three-year term.

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.”

Growing up in Belfast, Dame Jocelyn was surrounded with astrophysics from an early age with her father aiding in the design of the Amargh Planetarium, Ireland’s leading centre for astronomy education. She was encouraged by the staff of the observatory to read and was immediately drawn to books on astronomy.

During a time in which women were encouraged to stay at home, Dame Jocelyn made a prominent discovery in astrophysics. In 1967, alongside Anthony Hewish, she first observed pulsars in the night sky. One of the most significant achievements of the 20th century, pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars formed in supernova explosions.

She moved to Scotland in 1965, where she gained a degree in Natural Philosophy before completing her PhD at Cambridge University 1969.

Whilst raising her son Gavin with husband Martin, Dame Jocelyn worked part-time, during which time she was able to expand on her already vast knowledge on the wave spectrum in astronomy.

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.