The radio astronomer and physicist Bernard Lovell, who has died aged 98, was known worldwide for developing the 76m (250ft) radio telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory, in Cheshire. Completed in 1957, the telescope – known initially as Mark 1 and renamed the Lovell Telescope on its 30th anniversary – dominates the surrounding countryside and continues to make huge contributions to the science of astronomy.
Work on its foundations began in 1952. The cost was to be shared between the Nuffield Foundation and the government's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Originally estimated at £335,000, the eventual cost was around twice that figure. It led to an investigation by the Public Accounts Committee and to the University of Manchester being placed in debt by some £130,000.
A considerable factor in the escalating cost was the consultant engineer Charles Husband's concern for the structural stability of the telescope. When, in subsequent years, two very large radio telescopes in other parts of the world collapsed, all in a moment, into twisted masses of steel, Husband's concern was proven justified.
As if by a miracle, once up and running, the Mark 1 telescope was the only instrument that could both detect the first Soviet and American satellites and transmit instructions to them. Amazing as it now seems, the need for such a telescope had escaped both the telecommunications industry and the military leaders of both superpowers.
Despite its spectacular success, which included tracking the Sputnik 1 satellite mission in 1957, the government did nothing to alter the remaining debt, being bound by the iron restraint of Treasury rules. It was Lord Nuffield who did so, thereby demonstrating the superiority of aristocratic, rather than state support, to science – and indeed to all intellectual activity, a view which Lovell expressed frequently and forcefully to the end of his life.
He was born in the village of Oldland Common, Gloucestershire. His father, Gilbert, was a keen amateur musician, and his mother, Emily, came from a family of cricketers. Music and cricket remained Bernard's passions throughout his life. His interest in science appears to have been kindled at a public lecture given by AM Tyndall, professor of physics at Bristol University, in which Tyndall contrived to project an electric spark across what seemed to the young boy to be an impossibly large gap.
After attending Kingswood grammar school (now King's Oak academy), Bristol, Lovell went to Bristol University and received a first-class degree in physics in 1934. His research on the conductivity of thin metallic films went so well that by 1936 he had completed his work for his PhD. At Tyndall's suggestion, he applied for positions in London and Manchester. Although Lovell's preference was to work with PMS Blackett in London, it was to Manchester that he was appointed that year. In 1937, Blackett replaced WL Bragg as head of physics at Manchester, so it came about that Lovell was led into the study of cosmic rays (Blackett's field) rather than crystallography (Bragg's interest). It was cosmic rays that, by another curiously roundabout route, would eventually lead to the Lovell Telescope.
In 1937, Lovell married Mary Joyce Chesterman. Had it not been for their long and happy marriage, from which there were three daughters and two sons, it seems more than likely that Lovell would have found it difficult to survive the intense strain of the years from 1952 to 1957, or at any rate not with the immense success that brought him a knighthood in 1961.
His work on cosmic rays under Blackett was interrupted by the second world war during which, at the Telecommunications Research Establishment, Lovell worked with distinction, first on radar interceptors for night fighters, then on centimetric radar for the detection of submarines, and ultimately on the H2S radar used by British bombers. As a strong churchman, the latter activity was to be a matter of conscience to Lovell for the rest of his life. He later wrote about his radar work – which earned him an OBE in 1946 – in the book Echoes of War (1991).
Returning to Manchester in 1945, Lovell explored how to use wartime radar techniques for the detection of large cosmic-ray showers in the high atmosphere. Instead, meteors were detected, and a number of long outstanding problems in meteoric astronomy were ingeniously solved.
When a large fixed aerial system was constructed to detect cosmic-ray showers, this led to the realisation of the importance and potential of radio astronomy. Because meteors come at the Earth from all directions, a telescope capable of pointing anywhere was considered ideal, and it was this thought that led step by step at last to the Lovell Telescope. In recent years, it has been used to search for the Beagle 2 lander on Mars and to discover the first known double pulsar system.
Although threatened with closure in 2008, it now operates with several other telescopes in the Merlin array of observing stations. The Lovell Telescope came top in a BBC poll of unsung landmarks in 2006 and was shortlisted to bid for World Heritage site status in 2011.
In 1951, Lovell became professor of radio astronomy at Manchester University and the founder and first director of Jodrell Bank Experimental Station (renamed Jodrell Bank Observatory in 2000). In 1958 he gave the Reith Lectures, for the BBC, entitled The Individual and the Universe. His books included The Story of Jodrell Bank (1968).
Lovell is survived by four of his children, 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1993.
• Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell, radio astronomer and physicist, born 31 August 1913; died 6 August 2012
•Sir Fred Hoyle died in 2001
As the United States and the Soviet Union competed in the race that ultimately led to the Moon, the Jodrell Bank antenna’s unique ability to track objects in space made Mr. Lovell an independent observer of each side’s claims to success.
In 1958, the United States Air Force asked that the Jodrell Bank track an American attempt to launch a rocket to the Moon, and by that autumn NASA had contracted with the Jodrell Bank to provide tracking. In 1963 Mr. Lovell, because of his pre-eminence, became the first Westerner invited to the Soviets’ deep space tracking base in the Crimea.
During World War II, Mr. Lovell led a team of scientists in developing a British airborne radar, H2S, to guide bombers to their targets.
Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell was born on Aug. 31, 1913, in Oldland Common, near Bristol, England, the son of Gilbert and Laura Lovell. He later recalled a youthful trip to a science exhibition at which he saw “great sparks ripping across the lecture hall.” On a walk home, “for the first time, I looked up at the stars and wondered what they were.”
Mr. Lovell received a bachelor of science degree in 1934 and a doctorate in 1936, both from the University of Bristol. The year he received his doctorate he was also appointed an assistant lecturer in physics at Manchester University, with which he was to be associated throughout his career. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1955.
As early as 1941, while still focusing on radar’s uses in the war, Mr. Lovell and his mentor, Patrick M. S. Blackett, winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physics, had published a paper titled “Radio Echoes and Cosmic Ray Showers.” American scientists in the 1930s had built radio telescopes, which can study objects in space through the radio waves they give off or by bouncing signals off bodies like the Moon to determine exact distances and locations, and had begun to lay out some procedures for exploring space.
In 1945, Mr. Lovell returned to Manchester University with a trove of surplus military radar equipment, which he set up there. But electric trams running nearby produced overpowering interference, and he moved to property the university had bought before the war from the Jodrell family. The land included a high spot, or “bank,” and thus the telescope outpost acquired its name.
With his scrap-market materials, Mr. Lovell tracked meteors, but in the summer of 1948 he proposed building an ambitious 250-foot dish that could be pointed anywhere in the sky. Among his arguments as he sought financing was that it could track the satellites that scientists predicted would someday be launched into space.
In a link to the British Empire’s past, trunnions to support the dish were created using racks and pinions from the gun turrets of the decommissioned battleships Royal Sovereign and Revenge. Today, Jodrell Bank includes a range of research facilities built around the telescope, which bears Mr. Lovell’s name. And though its role tracking missiles at the dawn of the space age made it famous, most of its tracking time was spent on conventional astronomical research.
Mr. Lovell was the author or co-author of more than two dozen books and published lectures, among them “The Individual and the Universe” (1959); “The Story of Jodrell Bank” (1968); and his autobiography, “Astronomer by Chance” (1990).
An accomplished organist, Mr. Lovell played in the village church until his eyesight failed him in his late 80s. He also loved gardening and created a 10-acre garden at his home, La Quinta, which is open to the public.
Mr. Lovell married Joyce Chesterman in 1937. She died in 1993. In addition to his son Bryan, Mr. Lovell is survived by another son, Roger; two daughters, Judith Ann and Philippa; 14 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Lovell’s fame extended into the world of science fiction. A BBC scriptwriter appropriated his first name for the celebrated character Bernard Quatermass, a British rocket scientist who battles aliens.Continue reading the main story