Radio Pulsars: Introductory Reading

Pulsar schematic

Schematic diagram of a pulsar. The neutron star (white) has a powerful magnetic field (blue) whose axis (yellow) is misaligned from the rotation axis (red). The spin of the neutron star causes the pulsar beam to sweep across our line of sight, producing a radio pulse. Image credit: B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

So you need some introductory material on pulsars — maybe because you're going to work on a NANOGrav project, or a pulsar search program like PALFA. Here's a reading list to get you started, and a link to the Summer Student Start-up Sheet (Summer 2019 version).


  1. Hewish, Bell, et al. (1968), Observation of a Rapidly Pulsating Radio Source, Nature, 217, 709. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    The discovery of pulsars - purely historical interest.
    Also: Nobel prize lecture by Hewish.
  2. Hulse & Taylor (1975), Discovery of a Pulsar in a Binary System, ApJ, 195, L51. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    The first binary pulsar.
    Also: Nobel prize lecture by Hulse and lecture by Taylor. Don't miss these!
  3. Backer, Kulkarni, et al. (1982), A Millisecond Pulsar, Nature, 300, 615. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    The first millisecond pulsar.

Introductory Reviews:

  1. Lorimer (2008), Binary and Millisecond Pulsars, Living Reviews in Relativity, lrr-2008-8. (Web | PDF)
    A comprehensive observational review. Online version has embedded animations.
  2. Condon & Ransom (2016), Essential Radio Astronomy. (Hardcover | Online version)
    Specifically work through Chapter 6: Pulsars.

Pulsar Timing:

  1. Cordes (2002), Pulsar Observations I. — Propagation Effects, Searching Distance Estimates, Scintillations and VLBI,
    in Single-Dish Radio Astronomy: Techniques and Applications. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    Advanced technical introduction to observational techniques.
  2. Stairs (2002), Pulsar Observations II. — Coherent Dedispersion Polarimetry, and Timing,
    in Single-Dish Radio Astronomy: Techniques and Applications. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    Advanced technical introduction, part 2.
  3. A beginner-friendly introduction and technical guide by Emilie Parent,
    Pulsar timing: from raw data to phase-connected timing solution. (Direct PDF link)

Beyond this material, books like The Handbook of Pulsar Astronomy are useful resources, and the entire literature awaits...

  1. A very basic introduction to pulsar searching, courtesy of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory and Ryan Lynch:
    From the telescope to search output. (PDF)
    Understanding PRESTO search output. (PDF)
    Also see the PSC Frequently Asked Questions for help with concepts, and look at the other useful links like the Rogues Gallery.
    Also for reference: Scott Ransom's PRESTO tutorial (PDF).
  2. Cordes et al. (2006), Arecibo Pulsar Survey Using ALFA. I. Survey Strategy and First Discoveries, ApJ, 637, 446. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    A description of the Pulsar ALFA survey and the first discoveries.

Searching for Single Pulses and Bursts:

  1. Cordes and McLaughlin (2003), Searches for Fast Radio Transients, ApJ, 596, 1142. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    Single pulse search techniques.
  2. Spitler et al. (2014), Fast Radio Burst Discovered in the Arecibo Pulsar ALFA Survey, ApJ, 790, 101. (ADS | Direct PDF link)
    The first detection of an FRB at Arecibo. (And it turned out to be very special!)
  3. More on FRB 121102:
    Spitler et al. (2016), A Repeating Fast Radio Burst, Nature, 531, 202. (ADS)
    Chatterjee et al. (2017), A Direct Localization of a Fast Radio Burst and its Host, Nature, 541, 58. (ADS)
    Michilli et al. (2018), An Extreme Magneto-Ionic Environment associated with the Fast Radio Burst Source FRB 121102, Nature, 553, 182. (ADS)
  4. A comprehensive introductory review:
    Cordes and Chatterjee (2019), Fast Radio Bursts: An Extragalactic Enigma, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 57, 417. (ADS | Direct PDF link )
  5. Detection algorithms for Transients:

Pulsar Timing Arrays and Gravitational Waves:

  1. Hellings & Downs (1983), Upper limits on the isotropic gravitational radiation background from pulsar timing analysis, ApJ, 265, 39. (ADS)
  2. Jaffe & Backer (2003), Gravitational Waves Probe the Coalescence Rate of Massive Black Hole Binaries, ApJ, 583, 616. (ADS)
  3. Classical and Quantum Gravity, Focus issue: Pulsar timing arrays (2013, Volume 30, Number 22).
    A collection of articles that summarize the 2013 state-of-the-art in detecting gravitational waves with pulsar timing arrays.

Summer Student Start-up Sheet:

Summer 2019 version. New!

Last Modified: Shami Chatterjee, 2021 December 21   Valid CSS!