The death of radio astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell
The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, UK on 12 May 1976. Picture Nick Lomb
Sir Bernard Lovell, the man forever associated with the giant 250 foot (76-metre) radio telescope near Manchester UK, has died on 6 August 2012 at the age of 98. At his death he was Emeritus Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Manchester.
Born in 1913, Sir Bernard studied at the University of Bristol, but moved in 1936 to the University of Manchester. During the Second World War he did important radar work. After the war he wanted to use his knowledge of radar and surplus equipment to study the trails left behind by cosmic rays. In December 1945 he set up two trailers full of radar apparatus plus a diesel generator in a field in the Cheshire countryside where the university happened to have a botanical outstation. He did receive echoes, but instead of receiving them from cosmic rays they were from the trails left behind by meteors. Henceforth meteors became the main research area of his group.
There were some people in the group though that Sir Bernard directed to the new field of cosmic noise, which later became known as radio astronomy. Amongst these was Robert Hanbury Brown who was to marry Sir Bernard’s niece and later was a professor at the University of Sydney. It was the results of Hanbury Brown and his student Cyril Hazard in radio astronomy that provided the justification for a large steerable radio telescope. Work on the telescope began with laying its foundations in September 1952 and the telescope began operating in August 1957.
The Lovell Telescope in the Cheshire countryside on 12 May 1976. Picture Nick Lomb
Costs for the telescope were larger than expected and at one stage during construction it was found that the project was about a quarter of a million pounds in debt. These financial problems were ongoing even after the completion of the telescope and Sir Bernard as director of the project would have been in serious trouble but for the launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik 1 soon after the telescope was completed. As the telescope could receive signals from the satellite its worth was confirmed to the public and to politicians and the financial problems disappeared.
Astronomers have used the Lovell telescope to make many significant observations that have added to our knowledge of the Universe. Today the giant radio telescope is still one of the largest steerable radio telescopes in the world. Jodrell Bank holds an important place in astronomy as indicated by the fact that later this year the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Telescope, the giant radio telescope that is to be built in South Africa and in Western Australia, is to move there.
As stated in the announcement of his death by the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, ‘Sir Bernard’s legacy is immense, extending from his wartime work to his pioneering contributions to radio astronomy and including his dedication to education and public engagement with scientific research. A great man, he will be sorely missed.’
The announcement from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
Boffin: A Personal Story of the Early Days of Radar, Radio Astronomy and Quantum Optics, by R Hanbury Brown, Adam Hilger, Bristol, 1991.