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Words of Wisdom

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Science is About Understanding, Not Truth

"Science is a quest for understanding. A search for truth seems to me to be full of pitfalls. We all have different understandings of what truth is, and we'll each believe, or we are in danger of each believing, that our truth is the one and only absolute truth..."

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943) is a British astrophysicist who, as a postgraduate student, discovered the first radio pulsars, or pulsating star, in 1967. In a matter of great controversy, her thesis advisor Antony Hewish shared the Nobel Prize for this discovery with another astronomer, Martin Ryle. Bell Burnell’s exclusion came about despite her being the first to observe and precisely analyse the pulsars. Despite the snub, Bell Burnell has gone on to become one of the United Kingdom’s most decorated scientists and has served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 


“Science is a quest for understanding. A search for truth seems to me to be full of pitfalls. We all have different understandings of what truth is, and we’ll each believe, or we are in danger of each believing, that our truth is the one and only absolute truth, which is why I say it’s full of pitfalls. I think a search for understanding is much more serviceable to humankind, and is a sufficiently ambitious goal of itself.”

Photo credit: Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Anrie [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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