Pioneering scientist unlocked deep space




31-8-1913 6-8-2012

PROFESSOR Sir Bernard Lovell, the renowned British astronomer who led the team that built the Jodrell Bank telescope, at one time the largest steerable radiotelescope in the world, has died at home in Cheshire. He was 98.

The story of Jodrell Bank could serve as a metaphor for postwar British scientific and industrial development. It triumphed against all the odds, contributing greatly to Britain's scientific reputation and understanding of deep space.

When Lovell first proposed building the telescope in 1948, he estimated that it would cost about #60,000 to build. After work began in 1950, the project was plagued by strikes, bureaucratic delays, delivery failures and escalating raw material costs, and the figure spiralled to #670,000. It became the subject of heated debates in Parliament, and at one point Lovell faced possible imprisonment for allegedly overspending public money.

The telescope came into operation, still mired in controversy, on August 2, 1957. Two months later the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and Lovell's 75-metre-diameter device proved its worth as the only telescope in the Western hemisphere capable of tracking it. The detection of Sputnik silenced the critics who had condemned the telescope as a costly and unnecessary white elephant.

Jodrell Bank produced not only the first trackings of Sputnik, but also its carrier rocket, the first ever intercontinental ballistic missile. From then on and for much of the Cold War, it covered parts of the sky that Soviet, and often American, astronomers could not reach. When the American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, it was Lovell who revealed that, despite promising that they would put nothing into orbit that would interfere with Apollo 11, the Soviets had attempted to steal a march by landing their own unmanned space probe, which had crashed on the moon shortly before the Americans arrived.

Lovell never envisaged his telescope being used as part of the Western armoury in the Cold War, and it was Jodrell Bank's contribution to astronomy that kept it in the forefront of science. As director of Jodrell Bank Experimental Station (later Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories, and then Jodrell Bank Observatory) from 1951 to 1981, he presided over a string of important discoveries that have shed light on the origins of the universe.

In 1960, the telescope caught the first glimpse of quasars, mysterious starlike objects that radiate with the violence of 100 million suns. Almost two-thirds of all known pulsars have been discovered by Jodrell Bank astronomers, from signals received from deep space and radio echoes from the moon enabled Jodrell Bank scientists to give a new accuracy to measurement of the solar system.

In 1960, Lovell pulled off a notable coup when the telescope was employed to transmit signals to the American Pioneer V deep space probe to release it from its carrier rocket the only device capable of doing so at a distance of more than 35.2 million kilometres. Soon after Lovell took a telephone call from Lord Nuffield. "Is that Lovell?" "Yes, my Lord." "How much is still owing on that telescope?" "About #50,000." "Is that all? I want to pay it off."

Lovell was born at Oldland Common, near Bristol, into a family whose life revolved around the church and the cricket pitch. His mother was one of the first women cricketers. Cricket remained an abiding passion at university he played for three sides but he remained true to his upbringing and never played or watched the game on the Sabbath.

Lovell was educated at Kingswood Grammar School, Bristol, and studied physics at Bristol University. After completing a doctorate, in 1936 he moved to Manchester University for a year as assistant lecturer in physics. In 1937, he became a member of the university's cosmic ray research team under Professor Patrick (later Lord) Blackett, working in this capacity until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when he published his first book, Science and Civilisation.

During the war, Lovell helped research the use of radar for detection and navigation purposes, then was in charge of a team developing "blind bombing" radar systems that enabled night fighters to locate enemy aircraft, improved the aim of bombers during night raids, and enabled Coastal Command aircraft to detect submarines surfacing under cover of darkness a development that dramatically cut back shipping losses in the Atlantic. Hitler confessed that "the temporary setback in our U-boat campaign is due to a single technical invention of our enemies". For his wartime work, Lovell was appointed OBE in 1946.

After the war, Lovell returned to Manchester and used a former army mobile radar unit for use in his research on cosmic rays. When he realised the city's electric trams were causing interference, he moved the equipment to a field south of the city once owned by William Jauderell, who had fought with The Black Prince at Poitiers. Assisted by two gardeners from the university botanical gardens, Lovell set up a primitive radar station.

During his early wartime work he had suggested to Blackett, who was director of operational research at the Admiralty during the war, that the rapid and transient echoes seen by coastal defence and airborne radar might be reflections from cosmic ray showers (in fact, they were from meteors). Together they drew up a famous paper, Radio, echoes and cosmic ray showers, published in 1941. Lovell later wrote Meteor Astronomy (1954), a classic textbook on the subject.

Soon afterwards Manchester University agreed to provide Lovell with a permanent establishment at the Jodrell Bank site, and also to sponsor the construction of his first radio telescope. In recognition of his work, he was appointed senior lecturer in 1947, reader in 1949, and professor of radio astronomy in 1951, a position he held until 1980.

Lovell proved immensely capable both as an astronomer and as an ambassador for his country and for science. He wrote a number of lively and popular books, and in 1958 was chosen to give the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published a year later under the title The Individual and the Universe. Other works include Radio Astronomy (1952), The Exploration of Outer Space (1961), The Story of Jodrell Bank (1968), Emerging Cosmology (1980) and an autobiography, Astronomer by Chance (1990).

In retirement, Lovell spent many afternoons at Jodrell Bank, and found time to indulge his passion for cricket. He served as president of Lancashire County Cricket Club and in 1985 was drafted in by the Test and County Cricket Board to investigate electronic aids for umpires.

A keen musician, he played the organ at his parish church of Swettenham and served as president of the Incorporated Guild of Church Musicians. He regarded being away from England in the spring as "a form of masochism".

Lovell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1955, and was awarded the Royal Medal in 1960. He was knighted in 1961 for his pioneering work in radio astronomy.

He was president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1969 to 1971, and of the British Association in 1975-76. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1981 and received many other honours and awards.

He married, in 1937, Mary Chesterman, who died in 1993. They had two sons and three daughters.

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