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In Memoriam: Prof. Sir Bernard Lovell OBE FRS, 1913-2012.

Submitter: Michael Garrett
Description: Alfred Charles Bernard (A.C.B.) Lovell was born in t Oldland Common, Bristol on August 31, 1913. He died on the 6th of August 2012, peacefully at his home in Swettenham, Cheshire, surrounded by family. Lovell studied physics at Bristol University, and in 1936 took up a post in Manchester, where he worked with Prof. Blackett who was a great influence on his early career. Before the war, Lovell's research focused on the nature of cosmic rays - he was just about to join an observing campaign with Pierre Auger just before the outbreak of the WWII, when he had a call from Blackett: "On no account commence that journey," he commanded. "I have another job for you."

So began an intensive period in which Lovell (like many others physicists of his generation) began to develop, in secret, the radar systems that would be so vital in determining the outcome of the second world war. On the outbreak of war in September 1939, Lovell was in the operations room and noticed that the radar screen was full of echos. Alarmed that these echos signaled the approach of invading enemy aircraft, he expressed surprise that the operator was not informing the air defense units. "Oh no," she said, "those aren't from aircraft, they're from the ionosphere." Lovell wondered if there might not be a connection with cosmic rays and resolved to follow-up this line of research after the war was over.

In the meantime, Lovell found himself leading a team working on air-to-ground radar - systems that permitted "blind" bombing air raids to be conducted during the night. The team made good progress but it was not fast enough for Churchill - Lovell was summoned to the cabinet room and Churchill demanded that the equipment should be installed in a squadron of bombers by October. Lovell replied that this was impossible - most of the team had been killed in a recent test flight and the only prototype destroyed. Lovell was later to recall that Churchill threw his unlit cigar over his shoulder. "Now look here, young man," he said. "You lost one bomber, but we lost 30 over Cologne last night. Go into that room and don't come out until you tell me I can have my squadron by October."

After the war, Lovell returned to Manchester and after commandeering some surplus radar equipment, he began to resume his research into cosmic rays at Jodrell Bank botanical gardens - located in a remote area of Cheshire, on land owned by the University.

The rest, as they say is history. Ten years later, the majestic Mark I radio telescope (later renamed the Lovell Telescope in 1987) was rising from the Cheshire plains, and in 1957 it was the only antenna in the western world capable of tracking the carrier rocket of Sputnik 1. Lovell's greatest public achievements were associated with the space age - including the receipt and decoding of the first Soviet pictures of the surface of the moon - images that appeared in the UK tabloid newspapers the very next day - long before they ever appeared in Moscow. Less well known is the role played by Lovell and Jodrell Bank during the cold war as a key component of Western Europe's early warning system, especially during the Cuban missile crisis. The space age and the cold war were in many ways Lovell's and Jodrell Bank's saviour - the telescope was completed substantially over-budget, and Lovell himself was close to being imprisoned as a result. Fortunately, Lord Nuffield came to the rescue. Nuffield called Lovell and asked him how much was still owing on the telescope; Lovell replied about £80,000. Nuffield: “Is that all? I’ll send you a cheque to pay it off”. Lovell tried to thank him and Lord Nuffield said: “That’s alright my boy, you haven’t done too badly.

Sir Bernard remained active in research long after his retirement as Director of Jodrell Bank in 1980. He ran Jodrell very much as a no-nonsense, government research establishment with staff addressed by their surnames. At Jodrell, the tradition was for PhD students to form a close and intimate bond with the equipment they used - often building their own receivers, acquisition systems and data processing software - exactly the kind of training that is so rare and unfashionable today, and yet is so badly needed for the success of projects like LOFAR. This hands-on approach produced several generations of radio astronomers with a deep understanding of instrumentation and astronomy, in equal amounts. Perhaps Lovell's ultimate legacy is the impact these graduates of the Jodrell system have had in Observatories located all around the world.

Apart from his day job, Sir Bernard was an accomplished musician, a prolific and gifted writer of books, and a great enthusiast and lover of cricket. He also created the magnificent arboretums around Jodrell Bank and his home "La Quinta", in nearby Swettenham. Despite traveling the world, it was here that Lovell felt most comfortable - for example, he was described by a journalist as having written the BBC Reith Lectures in 1958 "over the spade". Lovell best described the strong relationship he enjoyed at home in La Quinta and at the nearby Jodrell Bank telescope, and his philosophy of science in his last book - Astronomer by Chance:

When I walk into these gardens, I can see, rising a few miles away across the flat Cheshire countryside, the great telescope that has so dominated this account of my scientific life. The telescope still probes the heavens, but, like Job, I feel the search relates to that "which maketh Arcturus, Orion and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south. Which doeth great things past finding out...".

Copyright: ASTRON; Photo Jodrell Bank
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