In memory of Sir Bernard Lovell

23 August 2012

The Foundation reflects on the life and work of Sir Bernard Lovell, the astronomer and physicist who died earlier this month aged 98.

Sir Bernard was the founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, home to the third largest steerable telescope in the world (the largest at the time of its completion in 1957). The development of the observatory remains a seminal project, not only in the history of the Nuffield Foundation, but in the history of British post-war scientific and industrial development generally.

The Lovell Telescope

Despite being beset by funding difficulties and controversy throughout its development, by the time the observatory came into operation, its 76m (250ft) radio telescope was the only telescope in the western hemisphere capable of tracking the first ever artificial satellite, the Soviet Sputnik 1. Sir Bernard himself later reflected: “It is unlikely that a scientific project has ever survived so many crises to attain ultimate success.” 

Early career and Jodrell Bank origins

Sir Bernard studied physics at Bristol University; where he stayed on to take a doctorate before moving to Manchester University and joining its cosmic ray research team led by Patrick (later Lord) Blackett. He became an expert in radar, and his contribution to military radar systems during the Second World War earned him an OBE in 1946.

Returning to Manchester after the war, Sir Bernard persuaded the army to tow two trailers of redundant radar equipment to the university’s botanical plot. This primitive radar station was to become the Jodrell Bank Observatory.

As the project and Sir Bernard’s aspirations grew larger, so did the need for funding. Lovell, Patrick Blackett and the University Vice Chancellor, Sir John Stopford, were frustrated by the limitations of the fixed dish, and wanted to build a new, steerable dish capable of scanning across the sky. Having received an earlier £1,000 contribution from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Sir Bernard applied to DSIR again, this time for the significantly larger sum of £259,000. 

The Foundation’s contribution

Not only was this a huge amount of money, but in the early 1950s, there was no precedent for government funding of ‘big science’ projects. The Nuffield Foundation, at that time spending in the region of £600,000 annually (equivalent to about £15 million today), had already gained a reputation for making significant contributions to large scale scientific projects. In 1951, former Nuffield Trustee Sir Henry Tizard approached the Foundation for the sum of £300,000, the estimated entire cost of the telescope. Following negotiations with the DSIR, the two funders agreed to split the cost, and the Foundation awarded a four year grant of up to £200,000.

Somewhat inevitably, the costs soared, and both the Foundation and DSIR had to commit further funding over the following five years. Indeed, it was only the personal intervention of Lord Nuffield in 1960 that cleared the final £50,000 overspend on the telescope, half of which came from the Foundation and half from his own private funds. 

This final contribution from the Foundation followed the success of the telescope in transmitting signals to the American Pioneer V deep space probe from a distance of over 22 million miles, enabling its release from its carrier rocket. Afterwards, Sir Bernard received a phone call from Lord Nuffield: “Is that Lovell?” “Yes, my Lord.” “How much money is still owing on the telescope?” “About £50,000.” “Is that all? I want to pay it off.”

The origins of the universe

Although the Jodrell Bank Observatory has been important within the political and military context of the Cold War, Sir Bernard also presided over a string of important discoveries which shed light on the origins of the universe. For example, the Lovell Telescope was the first to glimpse quasars, mysterious star-like objects which radiate with the violence of 100 million suns. Almost two-thirds of all known pulsars, pulsating stars, have been discovered by Jodrell Bank astronomers from signals received from deep space. And Jodrell Bank scientists have used echoes from the moon to improve the accuracy of measurement of the solar system.

Legacy

Originally called Mark 1, the telescope was renamed the Lovell Telescope on its 30th anniversary. In 2006, it came top in a BBC poll of unsung landmarks, and in 2011 it was shortlisted to bid for World Heritage site status. Today it remains operational in the Merlin array of observing stations.

The Foundation extends its condolences to Sir Bernard Lovell’s family. Though today funding big science is outside our means, we remain committed to science education and are proud of our role in supporting the work of this remarkable man, and the Jodrell Bank Observatory.