An interview with Sir Bernard Lovell

It’s not long after noon at Jodrell Bank; a warning siren shrieks, cutting through the white Cheshire sky. Outside the high windows of the control room, the Lovell Telescope begins to move – almost imperceptibly at first. It is 90 metres high, nearly 80 metres across and weighs roughly 3,200 tonnes, and yet as it begins to turn, the great bowl to tip, it is, extraordinarily, nearly completely silent. Somehow the silence makes its movement all the more awesome, nearly preternatural; though for the astronomers and engineers here nothing particularly extraordinary is happening. The telescope is being “parked” – its face pointing straight to the sky – so that an adjustment can be made to the equipment at the top of the focus tower; something not working quite as it should. A little team, wearing hard hats, sets off to go up into the dish.

Watching with us through the glass is Sir Bernard Lovell, after whom the telescope is now named. Fifty years ago and more he imagined this place might exist and, with the support of the University of Manchester and the help of an indefatigable engineer called Charles Husband, he brought it into being. Since that time it has been at the forefront of radio astronomy, so much so that the science as it is now would be totally unrecognisable to those who, decades ago, approved the audacious project. As Lovell says: “If I had mentioned any of the objects which the telescope is studying now they would have thought I was crazy. The very words were unknown: quasars, pulsars, gravitational lenses and so on. Such is the advance of science. It was difficult, you know, when I was proposing this telescope, to persuade people that it would be useful astronomically in 15 years’ time – and the engineers said it would be lucky if it lasted that long. That was 50 years ago. So as often in science, the solution of one problem creates another – everywhere. It seems that one can never reach finality.” But now the Jodrell Bank faces just that finality. The observatory could be closed after proposals to cut funding for an array of radio telescopes, including this dish, were announced this week because of an £80million shortfall.

The observatory first achieved fame 51 years ago when it tracked the Soviet Sputnik satellite. In those days radio astronomy itself was hardly considered a science: “You know who I mean by Hubble?” asks Lovell.
I nod, thinking of another great telescope named after another great astronomer. “This was in 1950, I think. Hubble was a great lover of England and I’d asked him in London once if he’d like to visit us at Jodrell Bank. Believe it or not he said, ‘Well, that’s very kind of you, but you know I do feel that your subject is not very much related to mine’.” Sir Bernard laughs. “Shortly after that, this subject which was not related to astronomy began to reveal very powerful and distant sources of energy in the Universe: radio galaxies and quasars and so on.”

Sir Bernard will be 95 this year. One year after he was born, the Great War began; only ten years had passed since the Wright brothers made humankind’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. These days his sight is going – because of that he has had to give up playing the organ, as he did for 40 years at his local church in Swettenham, and that, he says, is a terrible loss. But although he retired as director of Jodrell in 1981, he still comes into the office nearly every day, and it is perfectly clear that his presence around the place brings more than nostalgic pleasure to those who work here. Recently, for instance, the Lovell had a little trouble with its wheels, and when the wheels aren’t running the telescope can’t turn, of course. Sir Bernard was much involved in discussions which revealed that because the telescope could now move more quickly than it had been designed to do, this was putting undue strain on the metal. His opinions and expertise are, rightly, valued.

We chat for an hour or so in his tidy office on the site. He is sanguine about Jodrell’s current financial troubles over the funding of the e-Merlin network; he has been here before. The story of the telescope’s construction in its early days is a tale of one financial catastrophe after another. Sir Bernard reminds me that at one point in the early 1950s he himself was threatened with prison over the telescope’s debt. “Isn’t that extraordinary!” he says. A native of Gloucestershire, his voice has never lost its burr.
“But I have no doubt that the present problem will be overcome. We’ve always had this problem, away with the old and in with the new. And I understand people saying, ‘Away with that old telescope at Jodrell, let’s move forward’ – a position with which I sympathise. But here we have, and I don’t think this is entirely prejudiced, a fairly unique instrument and I think at the present time it has a certain life, say ten or fifteen years, in the e-Merlin project: it will be the most powerful telescope in that array. There are instruments which will eventually supersede it but they are not yet ready.”

His certainty, one feels, comes not only from experience but from faith. Lately, it seems, there has been a bigger rift than ever between science and faith; but to Sir Bernard they could never be enemies. “In science you always work by faith,” he says simply. “Without a vision, you perish.” He feels his life could have gone in another direction, perhaps towards the Church; he has always been aware of the need to create a balance between science and belief. “Maybe because I came from a childhood which was fundamentally religious, I have had to overcome, or rationalise, this conflict – particularly after the cauldron of the war. Increasing wisdom, one hopes it’s wisdom, leads one to believe that science is important, but not absolutely important.”
Smiling, he recalls the recent visit of a young scientist to Jodrell. “There was a brilliant young man giving a lecture here a couple of years ago. He discoursed for a long time on the problem of nothing, and nothingness, apparently quite unaware that this was a problem for the Ancient Greek philosophers. And his point was that now, you see, we understand that the Universe began with nothing. But this was the conclusion reached by St Augustine in AD400! What I’m really saying is we know a great deal, we’ve discovered an enormous amount in the last 50 years. But there’s still vast amounts to be discovered.”
It was a public lecture that gave Sir Bernard his own start in science . He was not, by his own account, a particularly studious boy. “When I was a young man at school, I was simply not interested in much other than cricket. I was a pretty poor student but I was taken by one of the physics masters to a public lecture by Sir Arthur Tyndall at the University of Bristol.” Tyndall was the founder of the physics department there.

“It was like an electric spark. I’d never been to the university and I’d rarely been to Bristol, I lived in the country. And that series of lectures transformed me.” He went on to be one of Tyndall’s students and was drawn only reluctantly to Manchester. Last year, at the 50th anniversary celebrations for Jodrell Bank, the grounds were filled with hundreds of scientists whose careers all began there. At present it has rather minimal facilities for visitors. The old visitors’ centre (which I came to, once, at the age of 9) had to be demolished but a new one is currently being planned.

“When we created the original science centre,” Sir Bernard says, “we used to get 150,000 visitors a year, and half of those were children. I very much hope that that will be replaced in due course, and I hope that the present difficulties will not interfere with that.” Even without proper facilities, tens of thousands of people come to the site every year. Part of Jodrell’s birthday celebrations included the First Move literary festival in June, which is how, in part, the literary editor of The Times comes to be talking to Sir Bernard.
I am not a scientist: but why should that matter? You can’t come to this place and not feel inspired by what its scientists, now led by Professor Phil Diamond, the current director, have achieved. And it is impossible not to be awed by the sheer beauty – the near-perfect beauty of an object that does what it is designed to do – of the Lovell telescope itself.

I have been lucky enough to climb up into the dish and lie staring at the sky, cupped in the telescope’s great palm. There’s a lift that takes you to the base of the bowl, not far from the huge gun turrets of two former warships, HMS Revenge and Royal Sovereign – which were rescued from the breakers’ yard to become the mechanism that drives the telescope in elevation (or, in plainer speech, tilts it; when it turns on its base, that’s called moving in azimuth). After that it’s all slender gantries and narrow ladders.
In the dish itself it’s possible to draw yourself close to the rim, though the paraboloid shape is steeper than it looks and I’ve yet to see anyone who didn’t have to slide back down on their bum. Inside it’s hard to judge distance; voices and sounds have a cottony, muffled quality, baffled by the nearly 5,000 square metres of the collecting surface of the dish. Is it strange to call a great instrument of science “magical”? Perhaps not – at least not by its creator’s lights.

It’s too bad, I say to Sir Bernard, that people, like me, think they can’t understand what goes on at a place like this. He laughs. “But of course they can’t understand it, because we can’t understand it! If we understood the things we were working on, we wouldn’t be working on them, they would already have been understood.”

The work that the telescope does – even without e-Merlin – is on the cutting edge of science. Only two years ago, scientists working at Jodrell discovered a double pulsar, the remnants of two exploded stars, which allowed the observatory to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity with the greatest certainty yet – 99.95 per cent, which is about as good as it gets.
Sir Bernard feels he still has much to do. “I retired in 1981,” he says, “but in the years since I’ve written more and done more than I ever did when I was the director. It’s the flow of young people, new people, that’s so important. Twenty or thirty years ago I could have packed up and gone away. But I just couldn’t. So here I am.”

Here he is, indeed, by the side of his mighty, wondrous creation. And long, long, may they both thrive.

Sir Bernard Lovell (1913 – 2012)
— Graduated in 1934 with a physics degree from the University of Bristol
— Worked for the Air Ministry during the Second World War researching radar for detection and navigation, for which he was awarded OBE in 1946
— Researched cosmic rays using a decomissioned army mobile radar unit in Manchester, but moved to nearby Jodrell Bank after finding that trams were causing interference
— Manchester University granted him permission to build his first radio telescope in the mid1940s and appointed him professor of radio astronomy in 1951
— In 1946 he showed that radar echoes could be obtained from daytime meteor showers
— Oversaw construction of the 250ft diameter parabaloid reflecting bowl in October 1952. It entered service in August 1957
— By October 1957, he was using it to track Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, launched by the Soviet Union. He was invited to share his discoveries at the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 1958
— Knighted in 1961 for work in radio astronomy
Publications include Science and Civilization (1939), Radio Astronomy (1952), Meteor Astronomy (1954), The Story of Jodrell Bank (1968), Emerging Cosmology (1980), and Astronomer by Chance (1990)