Science, Maths & Technology

Sir Bernard Lovell: An appreciation

Updated Tuesday 7th August 2012

Sir Bernard Lovell died on August 7th, 2012. Stephen Serjeant celebrates his contribution to science - and to the war effort.

Sir Bernard Lovell Creative commons image Icon Robert Alexander & doramusic.com under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license Sir Bernard Lovell Sir Bernard Lovell was one of our greatest scientists, the father of radio astronomy worldwide.

His death today at 98 will be much mourned but we are all living in his legacy - and not just astronomers. He had intended to work on cosmic rays in the Pyrenees, but just before the outbreak of World War Two he was buttonholed by Professor Patrick Blackett, who told him on no account to set out on the trip to the Pyrenees. Instead, Lovell went to work on Blackett's secret project: radar.

Lovell's contribution to radar turned into a very important part of the war effort. Bomber Command needed a way to hit targets at night, so Lovell was told to form a group to develop a system for blind precision bombing. His prototype was installed on a bomber, but the aircraft crashed in field tests. Lovell was summoned to the Cabinet room by Churchill where the leader demanded a squadron of bombers equipped with Lovell's system by October.

Lovell replied that the prototype had been destroyed in the crash, but Churchill forcefully countered: "Look here young man, you lost one bomber, but we lost 30 over Cologne last night". A squadron had Lovell's system by December 1942.

In the first raid, the crew reported that on Lovell's equipment "the dots on the Elbe stood out like the fingers on my hand".

After the war, he led the building of a magnificent and iconic radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, now named the Lovell Telescope in his honour.

The telescope cost much more than expected to build, leading to critical questioning from MPs, but the detection of Russia's Sputnik 1 rocket rapidly changed the press and public view. Lovell's telescope most famously eavesdropped on the Russian Luna 9 lander and sent its images of the Moon to newspapers before the Soviet announcements.

Lovell's telescope at Jodrell Bank is still internationally competitive and is now part of the e-MERLIN telescope array, on which I am co-leading an international project to study the warping of space and time by dark matter.

Jodrell Bank will also be the international headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array, an billion-pound international facility located in Australia and southern Africa which will revolutionise astronomy, as well as wiring up large parts of Africa with broadband with huge economic benefits.

Yesterday, a car-sized rover was lowered onto Mars with a rocket-powered sky crane, perhaps one of the most amazing and audacious feats you'll witness in your life. Scientists kept track of the spacecraft with a set of radio dishes called the Deep Space Network. Sir Bernard Lovell's legacy continues to this day.

 

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