After studying physics at the University of Bristol, Lovell was appointed to the staff of the physics department at the University of Manchester in 1936, where he was to spend his career. He became professor of radio astronomy and later director of the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories at Jodrell Bank, near Manchester.
Lovell was an outstanding experimental physicist who played a key part in the wartime development of radar in Britain, and went on to pioneer the study of radio astronomy, constructing the world’s largest steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank.
After early university work on the detection of cosmic ray showers with Blackett, Lovell was conscripted to the war effort in 1939 and worked on the development of airborne radar systems to enable British nightfighters to locate German bombers. This was highly successful and resulted in heavy casualties being inflicted on the bombers, saving many lives. In 1942 he was directed to take charge of the development of a radar system to help bombers locate their targets by ground returns, thus greatly increasing the effectiveness of Allied bombing raids against Germany. In March 1943 a modification of the system enabled aircraft to detect German U-boats at night, again with great success, dramatically reducing Allied shipping losses in the Atlantic.
After the war Lovell returned to Manchester; between 1946 and 1951 he used war surplus radar equipment to detect meteors via their ionized trails in the upper atmosphere. He made two significant discoveries: first, that many hitherto unknown meteor showers occur during daylight hours, often exceeding the known seasonal showers in number and intensity; second, by measuring meteor velocities using the radar he showed that their orbits were ‘closed’ (ie confined to the solar system) and that the meteors were therefore not of interstellar origin, as had been suggested.
In 1947 Lovell completed the construction of a 218 ft (66 m) aperture fixed parabolic aerial. This aerial was used to detect the radio emission from the Andromeda galaxy in 1951 by R Hanbury-Brown (1916 - ) and C Hazard. This work stimulated the plans made by Lovell in 1949–50 for what is undoubtedly his greatest and most lasting contribution to science, the building of a 250 ft (76 m) diameter steerable parabolic radio telescope. The actual building of the telescope became a cause célèbre of British science, greatly exceeding original cost and time estimates. Although Lovell was criticized for this, the Jodrell Bank telescope was breaking new ground as the first ‘big science’ project; it required large funding but it has been used by numerous teams of scientists for studying a wide range of phenomena for many years. Today, such projects are often funded on an international basis and are administered by sizable committees.
In 1957, almost before it was completed, the Jodrell Bank telescope caught the public imagination by tracking the carrier rocket of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. In 1959 the telescope measured the descent of Lunik 2 to the impact on the Moon and in 1966 recorded the first photographs of the lunar surface transmitted by the Russian Luna 9 probe. Although the telescope was used in the radar mode for studies of the Moon and measurement of the distance of Venus, the emphasis has been on radio astronomy. The identification of radio sources with optical objects was an early goal and this led directly to the discovery of the objects that became identified as quasars in 1963. Much of the early work on pulsars followed and the gravitational lens effect for quasars was discovered in 1979. Lovell’s own research with the telescope led to the discovery of the radio emission coincident with the optical flares on the red dwarf stars.
While Lovell’s personal scientific achievements were noteworthy, his lasting impact on science has been through his administrative and political efforts, which led to the building of the great scientific instrument that today bears his name.