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Bernard Lovell

November 13, 2012

The man behind Jodrell Bank

This first appeared on AO Deadpool, where obits tend to be irreverent nonsense cribbed from Wikipaedia, or at least mine do. But my friend, the historian Peter Liddle, gave me the transcript of an interview he did with Bernard Lovell for his World War 2 Experience Centre a few years ago. So this may contain something original. I’ll try to be serious. Apart from the poem of course. Here goes.

Bernard Lovell was the man behind the 76-metre Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the first, largest, and most famous, steerable “big dish” in the world — it’s now number three, but don’t pretend you’ve heard of Effelsberg or Green Bank. The iconic structure in the fields near Manchester is now so familiar that it’s difficult to recall the bother of getting it built. The engineers were nervous that it would suddenly crumple — rightly so, it later turned out, when other cheaper telescopes collapsed dramatically — so they kept putting on more expensive bracing. The budget overruns became a national scandal, and Lovell was hauled before Parliament, hounded in the press, and even threatened with personal bankruptcy.

And then he was saved. The telescope worked. It not only hoovered up unimaginable quantities of data from distant galaxies, but was the only Western device capable of tracking the first Russian Sputniks as they flew over, and later the first pictures from an unmanned Russian moon landing. The bureaucrats pressured Lovell for a couple of years but eventually Lord Nuffield, the car magnate, wrote the cheque that sprung him free.

Bernard Lovell was born in Oldland Common near Bristol. His father, a lay reader in the local church (where Bernard played the organ) founded the Oldland Cycle and Radio Company. Bernard built his first wireless at school, and recalls that an inspiring public lecture in the university’s WD & HO Wills Physics lab encouraged him later to build the Jodrell Bank visitor centre — some good coming out of tobacco. At Bristol University in the late 1920s, he found himself researching next door to Klaus Fuchs, then a fugitive from the Nazis, later the famous spy who leaked atomic secrets to Russia.

After Bristol he went to work with the Nobel Prize winner, X-ray crystallographer William Bragg, in Manchester, having just failed to get his first choice job with the physicist Patrick Blackett in London. Not a bad consolation prize! But soon Blackett moved to Manchester, and they worked together on cosmic radiation. When the war started, Blackett sent Lovell to work at the Bawdsey research station on radio wave detection. This was the work that eventually led to the first workable radar systems. Lovell, still in his twenties, was right in the thick of it, shortening the wavelength to improve resolution, altering bombers to fit the equipment, mixing with the generals, and on occasion even visiting Downing Street to get Churchill’s blessing. He admitted it went to his head and led to his near downfall twenty years later.

Lovell later claimed that on a visit to a radar station near Scarborough he saw masses of echoes on the screen and rebuked the operator for not reporting them. The reply (“That’s not echoes, it’s what we call the ionosphere.”) gave him the idea of radio astronomy and, eventually, the radio telescope. Lovell’s claim wasn’t true — Karl Jansky had made the first radio telescope in 1931 and knew that the background hiss came from outer space, and Grote Reber had built the first parabolic dish in 1937 — but it made a good story.

But the first moon pictures were Lovell’s. In the late ’60s, while monitoring an unmanned Soviet spacecraft which had landed on the moon, he suddenly realised it was transmitting back a picture. He had to borrow a local newspaper’s digital picture technology — this was long before jpegs or bitmaps — to create a print, but it flew ’round the world. The Russians had kept it secret, and he’d scooped the Americans with the first picture of the surface of the moon.

Now the telescope spends its days searching for pulsars and its nights hosting musical events. A few weeks before they closed the Olympic ceremony, Manchester’s rock gods, Elbow, performed in front of it. Lovell the showman would have approved.

Sitting up in Manchester
He was just plain Mr Lovell
When he first got the idea
To build a telescope at Jodrell

He was expert on the radio waves
But he knew no economics
So he had to bluff the money
And talk about astronomics

But the telescope was pricey
The money was overspent
He nearly went to prison
There were questions in Parliament

Then Sputnik flew over
And only he could track it
The first photo from the moon
Jodrell Bank got it

Pulsars and galaxies
Soon they came fast and thick.
Wanna see the Big Bang?
Get yourself to Jodrell quick

Pop stars came and went
But Jodrell’s fame went on so long
That instead of the Elbow,
They gave Lovell a gong

— Jim Thornton

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