“Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another,” said Greek philosopher Plato. With the renaming event on September 7 for the Bell Burnell Observatory— previously the Oscar Mayer Observatory—Madison has a new facility for cultivating the exploration of astronomy.
The history of the Bell Burnell Observatory dates back to 1880, when the director of the Washburn Observatory, located on University of Wisconsin-Madison's (UW) campus, felt there was too much student traffic for the University to only have one observatory. This notion spurred him to personally fund the construction of the student observatory, which was then called the Student Observatory. However, as Madison grew, light pollution obstructed both the Student and Washburn observatories, rendering the facilities obsolete.
In 1959, the UW offered to gift the Student Observatory to the Madison Astronomical Society (MAS) on the condition that MAS was able to finance a move to a different site. A year later, the observatory was officially relocated to its current location on the Promega Campus, and renamed the Oscar Mayer Observatory after the astronomer who funded its move. The observatory was in use for over two decades until light pollution resulting from Madison’s growth once again caused it to be inactive.
It was given new life in 2017 when the Promega founder and CEO, Bill Linton, pioneered renovations for the Oscar Mayer Observatory. Four years later, the remodeling was complete with a library, functional rotating dome, new reflector and telescopes with cameras.
Upon completion in 2022, Bill Linton proposed renaming the observatory after professor Jocellyn Bell Burnell, an established astronomer who dedicated her life to advocating for more women and minorities in STEM. Burnell’s career started while she was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in England, where she discovered Pulsars while researching with a team at the Univerisy. Pulsars are neutron stars that rapidly rotate while emitting pulses of radio waves along with other forms of radiation.
However, her superiors Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle not only received all the credit for the discovery, but were also awarded the Nobel Prize for Pulsars. Despite her former colleagues' blatant abuse of power, Jocelyn Burnell later won the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018 for the same discovery. Burnell was awarded three million dollars for her extraordinary achievements. She decided to donate all the money to a scholarship fund she created, providing opportunities for underrepresented groups in STEM and diversifying science fields.
On September 7 of this year, in honor of renaming the observatory, Jocelyn Bell Burnell joined Bill Linton for the unveiling of the building’s new sign. This marked a new age for the Bell Burnell Observatory, which will now serve as a hub for educational programs offered by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute for community members, students, and teachers alike.
The Bell Burnell observatory has served Madison for over 140 years. Now, with the efforts of Promega and inspiration from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, it will continue its storied legacy while adapting to the needs of an ever-changing community.
[Sources: Madison.com; Wisconsin State Journal; UW-Madison; Oxford English Dictionary; Promega Connections; Lysis]