Meet the astrophysics star championing diversity in science

Solutions
Astrophysics star Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell finally receives recognition for her ground-breaking work after 50 years; in the most badass move of all moves, donates the whole prize money.

On Thursday the 6th of September 2018, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell received the prestigious Special Breakthrough Prize In Fundamental Physics, which comes with £2.3 million in prize money; and on the same day, she donated all of it.

The Special Breakthrough Prize is awarded to scientists who have made “profound contributions to human knowledge” and is not limited to recent discoveries. In Professor Burnell’s case, the award was 50 years overdue. Bell was awarded the prize for the fundamental role she played in the ground-breaking discovery of pulsars in 1968.

Pulsars “are stars roughly the size of San Francisco with masses comparable to the Sun’s. They are rich in neutrons [...] and can spin so rapidly that their surfaces move at a significant fraction of the speed of light.”

They emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation that can only be observed when it is pointing towards the Earth, thus produces a pulsed appearance. For each individual pulsar, there is a very precise interval between each pulse.

The precision of these intervals make pulsars extremely reliable natural clocks for observing and mapping our galaxy and the visible universe, and astrophysicists have been using them for just that since their discovery.

The discovery of pulsars is considered to be one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. According to Edward Witten, the chair of the Selection Committee, until the moment pulsars were discovered “no one had any real idea how neutron stars could be observed if indeed they existed. Suddenly it turned out that nature has provided an incredibly precise way to observe these objects.”

Professor Burnell was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge when she noticed an anomaly in her observation, a signal that was pulsing with great regularity. At first her discovery was overlooked, but nevertheless, she persisted and pushed her research team to look further into it.

Her observation and insistence led to the larger discovery of pulsars and everything that came with them.

Despite being the first person to observe the anomaly and playing a fundamental role in developing the research, Burnell was controversially omitted from the Nobel Prize awarded to her male colleagues in 1974.

50 short years after her initial discovery, Professor Burnell’s immense contribution to astrophysics has been recognized with The Special Breakthrough Prize, and she’s donating all 2.3 million pounds of her prize money to fund scholarships for women, refugees, and people from ethnic minorities in science.

In an interview with BBC News, Professor Burnell explains her decision to donate the prize money by saying she doesn’t “want or need the money for herself and [this] seemed the best use [she] could put to it.”

Her initial discovery not being taken seriously and her controversial omission from the Nobel prize are just two examples of discrimination Professor Burnell, and many other minority scientists for that matter, has to deal with daily.

Throughout her career, Burnell has dealt with and overcame these challenges, she “has [also] been instrumental in making sure the issue of access to science by people from under-represented groups is at the very top of the science community’s agenda.”

She believes “minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.” Burnell’s decision to donate the prize money to stimulate minority participation in science is a testimony of her dedication to the cause.

Professor Burnell not only sets an example with her scientific achievements but also with her dedication to using her resources to pave the way for others. If you, like Professor Burnell, are passionate about equality in education here are two Kinder assessed charities you can donate to:

  • Educate Girls empowers communities to facilitate girls’ education in rural India and helps them take a stand against gender inequality

  • The Global Partnership for Education is a global fund solely dedicated to education in developing countries

More about: Tough Activists

More Stories

  • Makeup guru Jeffree Star wants to sell pink vegan cheeseburgers

    Solutions

    American Internet celebrity and makeup artist Jeffree Star wants to open his own vegan-friendly fast-food chain.

    As reported by LiveKindly, Jeffre Star made the announcement during a live stream on his Youtube channel where he speaks to an audience of 11 million subscribers.

    During the video, the makeup guru said that he is "in talks" to start the business. The concept? A vegan-friendly ('that's the real gag") restaurant, selling pink cheeseburgers and cotton candy fries.

    Yes, you got that right.

    As noted by LiveKindly, this is not Mr Star's first foray into the world of veganism. Over the years, his beauty brand Jeffree Star Cosmetics already launched a series of vegan products like Thirsty, a vegan eyeshadow palette, and, more recently, the four festive vegan lip scrubs.

    We'll see whether these business plans will turn out to be something more substantial than a Youtube announcement.

    Meanwhile, we can't help but gladly notice that plant-based burgers and veganism at large are gaining momentum across different audiences.

    This story features:
    Read more
  • These are the 4 most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint

    Your moment

    If we want to save our planet and ourselves from climate apocalypse, we need new policies and governmental action. We're not gonna save the Earth changing our household light bulbs.

    Extinction Rebellion – a burgeoning social movement to fight climate change that is taking hold in the United Kingdom – is asking for just this: governments must tell the truth about the ecological emergency and enact legally binding measures to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025.

    There are no other ways out of this mess: structural change is needed.

    However, this doesn’t mean that as individual citizens we can go on a carbon spree without consequences. Or that all the ways to reduce our personal carbon footprints are equally ineffective.

    Different studies highlight that there are four effective ways to cut on your individual carbon emissions. And no, changing light bulbs is not one of them.

    While we should keep asking for top-down changes, it’s also good to remember that we can start making an impact on the environment right now by adapting our lifestyle.

    1) Eat a plant-based diet

    Plant-based diets are gaining momentum, at least in the media. Many articles published over the past few months emphasize the importance of ditching meat to fight the climate breakdown.

    I enjoy the flavour of meat a lot and I’d find it difficult to go 100 percent vegetarian (let alone vegan) right now. Nevertheless, I can considerably decrease my meat consumption. This is already highly beneficial for the environment.

    Moreover, I can advocate for meat alternatives like plant-based or clean meat.

    2) Avoid air travel

    Flights are a notorious source of gas emissions. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid flying. Many jobs require travelling on a regular basis and even though in many cases a virtual meeting will do just fine, there are still some occasions in which your physical presence is needed.

    How to solve this ethical dilemma? One solution might be to donate some money to carbon offsetting schemes. These projects can go a long way in fighting carbon emissions.

    3) Live car-free

    Research shows that living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (while a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year).

    I’m lucky enough to live in the Netherlands, a country where it's easy to move around without a car. This is possible thanks to an efficient public transportation system and the omnipresent cycle lanes.

    In this case, it’s interesting to notice how my personal decision to live car-free is supported by environmentally friendly public policies.

    4) Have a small family

    If someone doesn’t exist, she doesn’t have a carbon footprint. This reasoning might seem at the same time cynical and stupidly obvious. But it’s also true.

    According to Population Matters, having one fewer child is 25 more effective in cutting carbon emissions than living without a car.

    What else could I do to reduce my carbon footprint?

    Support Cool Earth, a highly effective organization that we thoroughly vetted.

    Cool Earth is not only an offset scheme. It provides grant funding to rainforest communities, supporting community work in rainforest protection and ensures their voice is heard in agreements about the future of the rainforests. At the time of writing, 234,436,540 tonnes of CO2 has been stored as a result of their projects. Their Asháninka project shields millions of acres of forest from loggers, with 901,679 acres saved to date.

    You too can help to save our planet. A more liveable Earth is just a click away 👇

    Read more
  • We vetted 5 celebrity charities to see whether they’re doing any good

    Obstacles

    It’s known that many celebrities support noble causes. After all, if you’re a celeb, you supposedly got the visibility and the money. So, you’re particularly well-suited to help other people.

    Some VIPs go the extra mile and found their own charitable organization.

    But are these celebrity-powered charities effective? Or even: are they doing any good?

    To answer these questions, we picked five charities founded by celebrities and ran them through our Kinder Vetting Framework. Let’s see what came out.

    The charities

    Our selection of charities below isn't based on any scientific criteria. We browsed lists of celebrity founded charities and tried to pick out a balanced list 

    These are the charities that we picked:

    • The Lopez Family Foundation. Co-founded by journalist Lynda Lopez and her sister singer Jennifer Lopez, the Lopez Family Foundation “advocates and invests in policies and programs that make a positive, measurable impact on communities and makes quality healthcare and health education available for underserved mothers and their children.”

    • Born This Way Foundation. A charitable organization created in 2012 by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta “with the goal of creating a kinder and braver world” (we can’t help but sympathize with such aim).

    • The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Created in 1998, the foundation was established with the mission of protecting the world’s last wild places.

    • The Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation was founded in 2003 by Angelina Jolie as a “conservation and community development program in the Samlout Protected Area” (Cambodia).

    • The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is a nonprofit boarding school that provides “education and leadership opportunities” to disadvantaged girls in South Africa. 

    The Kinder Vetting Framework

    At Kinder, we developed a vetting framework to assess the performance of charitable organizations. At the moment, it’s made of two steps but we’re working to add another two in the near future.

    The first step is called Initial Screening. With it, we examine the transparency and accountability of charitable organizations by evaluating their official websites.

    In particular, we evaluate the charities on five parameters.

    • First off, we check if potential donors can easily contact the organization they want to donate to.
    • Then, we see if there’s relevant information about the organization's staff readily available online.
    • Third, we check if the organization makes its financial statements public.
    • We do the same for the organization’s strategic plans: can donors easily understand how the organization is planning to use the money raised in the future? 
    • And finally, we check if the organization has been involved in any scandal in the past. If yes, we want to see how it explained the scandal(s) to its donors.


    This is a fairly low initial threshold. To pass the Initial Screening, you need a score of 95.

    The second step is called Organizational Competence. With it, we try to determine whether a charitable organization is competent and well-suited to solve the problems it’s addressing.

    If an organization fails the Initial Screening, we usually don’t vet it on its Organizational Competence. Our aim in the next months is to start reaching out to all the organizations that fail the Initial Screening, share our results with them, and ask if they’re willing to improve their score.

    The results

    So, to start with, we just wanted to see whether the five celebrity-run charities passed the Initial Screening.

    I asked our in-house research team to have a look. This is the screenshot that they shared with me:

    Again, to pass the Initial Screening you need to score at least 95. None of them did.

    Quite discouraged, I read the notes the research team attached to the screenshot.

    All charities with the exception of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation lack relevant information about their strategic plans. At the same time, DiCaprio’s organization needs to improve on other parameters like publishing its financial statements.

    The Born This Way Foundation’s website was deemed “quite minimalist” by the research team, lacking information about key staff members and financial statements. Similarly, the Lopez Family Foundation should expand its website to include financial statements, strategic plans, relevant information about key staff members, and contact information (they don’t even have a contact form).

    Obviously, the fact these five charities don’t pass the Initial Screening doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inefficient. It just suggests that they should work more on their online transparency and accountability.

    In general, Kinder is not in the business of bashing charities and we would never share an organization’s poor results without discussing them with the relevant stakeholders beforehand. In this case, we made an exception since these five charities are exceptionally well-backed.

    And if you’re Lady Gaga, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey, or Angelina Jolie and want to improve the Initial Screening score of your foundation don’t hesitate to drop us a line at davide@kinderdonations.org

    Header Image: The Wolf of Wall Street © Paramount Pictures

    Read more