Sir Bernard Lovell (1913-2012)

Sir Bernard Lovell at Jodrell Bank. Image © The University of Manchester

We were greatly saddened to learn of the death in August of Sir Bernard Lovell, at age of 98. Sir Bernard, Emeritus Professor of Radioastronomy, was the founder and first Director of The University of Manchester’s world-famous Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire. He was also a good friend of the Library.

Bernard Lovell came to the University of Manchester in 1936 and during the Second World War he worked on the top-secret H2S Radar, for which he was later awarded an OBE. He returned to the Physics Department in 1945, and later that year he installed ex-military radar equipment at Jodrell Bank to study cosmic rays. In the late ’40s he conceived the hugely ambitious idea of building a steerable telescope with a paraboloid or reflecting bowl of 250-feet diameter. Construction began in October 1952 and the telescope’s first act was to track the rocket that carried Sputnik 1 into space in October 1957. Since then it has been involved in many astronomical and space research projects. Now known as the Lovell Telescope, it remains one of the largest steerable radio telescopes in the world.

Sir Bernard (he was knighted in 1961) remained actively involved at Jodrell Bank well into his nineties, and a few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting him there, when he transferred the bulk of his papers to the Library’s custody. However, he was concerned that some of the material was still sensitive, and therefore stipulated that it should remain closed during his lifetime. In particular, he asked us to restrict access to the diary of his visit to the Soviet Union in 1963. The visit took place at the height of the Cold War – in fact less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which Jodrell Bank acted as the UK’s early warning system against missile attack.

The visit was undertaken to pursue scientific collaborations with astronomers in the Soviet Union, and was a success in that respect. For instance, they discussed the possibility of connecting radio telescopes across large distances (Very Long Baseline Interferometry), a technique which is now used across the world and  includes telescopes at Jodrell Bank and in Russia. However, there has been a lot of subsequent speculation over the visit, and whether the Soviets attempted to persuade him to defect, or even to brainwash him. There was even a suggestion that the Soviets tried to poison him with radiation. We may never know the full story, but what is not in doubt is that a few days after returning home Sir Bernard fell ill and took some time to recover.

In consultation with the Lovell family and senior staff at Jodrell Bank, we have decided to de-restrict the papers relating to the 1963 visit, and to digitise them, in order to preempt the many enquiries for access to the original material.

Excerpt from Sir Bernard Lovell’s 1963 Diary.

Already the diary has attracted a lot of interest from the media, who never allow the absence of hard facts to get in the way of a good story. As well as several newspaper reports, it featured prominently on BBC1’s North-West Tonight on Friday 21 September. While the programme is no longer available to view online, there is an interesting article on the BBC website.

John Hodgson

1 comment on “Sir Bernard Lovell (1913-2012)

  1. Pingback: The name behind the telescope: Sir Bernard Lovell - Science and Engineering

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