Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lovell’s Legacy

August 1976. The 21st Olympics closed in Montreal, Canada; race riots in Cape Town, South Africa left 17 dead; and Elizabeth Taylor divorced Richard Burton ... for the second time. Those items I admit to having referenced, being unable to recall them. I do, however, remember hearing Candi Staton’s soul classic Young Hearts Run Free on the radio, and watching West Indian greats Michael Holding and Viv Richards destroy England at London’s Oval Cricket Ground during that hot, and impossibly dry, summer month. Such was the mind of a ten-year-old boy who was passionate about cricket and music but little else.

During that same month, I visited one of Britain’s most spectacular examples of post-war scientific development. The Jodrell Bank Observatory, in my home county of Cheshire, houses (what was then) the largest steerable radio telescope in the world (Figure 46.1). Constructed in the 1950s, and weighing 3,2oo tons, it was the brainchild of an innovative English physicist called Bernard Lovell.
Figure 46.1: The jewel of the Cheshire countryside
Copyright © 2012 Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory

Lovell, born in 1913, obtained his science degrees at the University of Bristol in the 1930s. Prior to World War Two, he worked as part of a research team at the University of Manchester. When hostilities began, he developed aircraft radar systems, and was awarded an OBE as soon as the war had been won. From 1945 until 1980, he was the first Observatory Director (Figure 46.2), during which time the ‘Lovell telescope’ acted as an early warning system during the Cold War. His knighthood, in 1961, was thoroughly deserved.
Figure 46.2: Sir Bernard Lovell, working at his desk at Jodrell Bank
Copyright © 2012 NASA

Today, I returned to Jodrell Bank, after 36 years, with one of my sons. This year, the summer weather is a far cry from the sun and haze of ’76. Britain is, apparently, enduring its wettest summer on record; but the heavy, grey sky could do nothing to diminish our sense of anticipation as we cruised along the winding country lanes between the green villages of Goostrey and Chelford.

For sound reasons, the observatory is situated deep in the countryside, where signal interference is minimal. The original visitor centre and planetarium are no longer there, but the vast parabola (Figure 46.3) looked as awesome as ever, especially through the eyes of a child (Figure 46.4). Recent redevelopments include a Space Pavilion, complete with interactive activities, and a beautifully-crafted orrery (clockwork Solar System model) (Figure 46.5) which captivated everyone who stopped to look at it. It was possible, also, to obtain real-time data from space (Figure 46.6).
Figure 46.3: The parabola, one of the most useful (and elegant) geometric shapes, is a common feature of scientific and engineering practice (see ‘Galileo In The Kop’). The 76-metre-diameter dish reflects all incoming radio waves to the same focal point, where the receiver is situated. These are then relayed to an amplifier, which magnifies the faint signals, before being processed by computer.
Copyright © 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Figure 46.4: One of my sons, gazing up in admiration at Lovell’s creation. It could easily have been a picture of myself from 36 years ago.
Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery
Figure 46.5: An orrery is an intricate mechanical device showing the relative positions and motions of the planets.
Copyright © 2012 Smabs Sputzer
Figure 46.6: Live radio telescopic data from 2012. I remember that back in 1976 this information was produced in the form of ticker tape!
Copyright © 2012 Jodrell Bank Observatory

Half a century after its construction, the Lovell remains a fully functional radio telescope, operating as part of the MERLIN and European VLBI Networks. Current research includes investigations into cosmology, galaxies, astrophysics and, in particular, pulsars (highly-magnetized, rotating, radioactive stars), the discovery of two-thirds of which have been made at Jodrell Bank.

Most famously, perhaps, the Lovell telescope tracked the Apollo 11 spacecraft to and from the moon in 1969 – a poignant fact in the week when its commander, Neil Armstrong, died.

By some sad coincidence, August 2012 will be noted for the death of an equally illustrious man. Three weeks ago, Sir Bernard Lovell died peacefully at his Cheshire home. He was 98 years old. His legacy is obvious. No Lovell ›› no Jodrell Bank ›› no Professor Brian Cox enthralling us on TV ›› far less inspiration to today’s school children – including my own.

Lastly, I feel obliged to mention that Sir Bernard’s childhood hobbies, from both of which he continued to derive great pleasure throughout his long and distinguished adult life as a scientist (Figure 46.7), were cricket and music. What more is there to say?
Figure 46.7:  A short biography of Sir Bernard stands between the Lovell telescope and new Space Pavilion
Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

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