Sir Bernard Lovell,
BY KEITH COOPER
Posted: 7 August 2012
One of the greatest pioneers of radio astronomy, Sir Bernard Lovell OBE died at his home yesterday at the age of 98, less than a month shy of his 99th birthday. He will be best remembered for founding the world-famous Jodrell Bank radio observatory near Macclesfield in Cheshire, and for building its iconic 76-metre radio dish, named the Lovell Telescope in his honour.
Sir Bernard Lovell with Jodrell Bank's iconic 76-metre radio telescope. Image credit: The University of Manchester.
Born in Gloucestershire he received his PhD in Physics at the University of Bristol in 1936 before moving north to the University of Manchester to research cosmic rays. When war broke out in 1939 he was called upon to help develop radar to spot German bombers as they crossed the English Channel, receiving an OBE for his efforts. Whilst working on military radar he began to notice random, unexplained echoes that at the time he thought might be caused by cosmic rays entering the atmosphere.
His interest piqued, he returned to Manchester after the war to find out what those mysterious radar echoes were. Within a year and with the help of an ex-army radar system, he had discovered that the radar echoes were actually caused by meteors burning up in the atmosphere. Yet he was still on the hunt for cosmic rays and to that end he set up the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station in 1947 (he'd tried radio astronomy in the centre of Manchester, but the radio interference from the trams shuffling up and down Oxford Road was too great), incorporating a 66-metre fixed-position parabolic reflecting telescope that made the first ever map of the Andromeda Galaxy at radio wavelengths. However, it failed to detect cosmic rays and Lovell wanted something even bigger and better – a giant, fully steerable radio dish. By 1957 the huge 76-metre Mark I dish – the biggest in the world, later renamed the Lovell Telescope – was ready, with one of its first tasks being to track Sputnik 1 as it orbited the Earth. Jodrell Bank also followed many of the missions to the Moon, including Apollo 11.
This beast of a telescope is still the centrepiece of Jodrell Bank radio observatory, where Lovell was director until 1980 and he continued to work at the observatory as an Emeritus Professor of Radio Astronomy until quite recently, when ill health prevented him. Jodrell Bank will be his enduring legacy, with it now the heart of a high-speed network of radio telescopes across the UK and extending into mainland Europe. It is also the HQ of the Square Kilometre Array, the next step in radio astronomy that will combine thousands of dishes and antennas across southern Africa and Australia in the coming two decades. Jodrell Bank radio observatory, and Lovell's vision for it, has shaped radio astronomy past, present and future.
Outside of his work, Sir Bernard was a keen cricketer and musician and loved arboriculture (the study of trees and shrubs), creating many arboretums including at the observatory and at his countryside home.
Jodrell Bank Observatory have opened a book of condolence at their Discovery visitor centre, and an online book will be available shortly at www.jb.man.ac.uk.