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Lovell, Bernard, 1913-2012

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Summary Article: Lovell, (Alfred Charles) Bernard (1913–2012) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Subject: biography, astronomy

Place: United Kingdom England

English radio astronomer and author. His experience with radar during World War II led to his applying radar to the detection of meteors and to his energetic instigation of the construction of the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank Experimental Station (now the Jodrell Bank Observatory) in Cheshire, where he was director 1951–81.

Lovell was born in Oldland Common, Gloucestershire, on 31 August 1913, the son of a lay preacher. Educated at the Kingswood Grammar School, Bristol, he then attended Bristol University, where he read physics, graduating in 1933. Three years later he became assistant lecturer in physics at Manchester University. During World War II he was in the Air Ministry Research Establishment in Malvern where, under his guidance, centimetric airborne radar was developed for use on ‘blind bombing’ air raids and submarine defence. At the end of the war, Lovell returned to Manchester as lecturer in physics and immediately began pressing the authorities to set up a radio astronomy station at Jodrell Bank (about 32 km/20 mi south of Manchester). He was appointed senior lecturer in 1947 and reader in 1949, all the while agitating for his dream of a radio telescope at Jodrell Bank to be made a reality. Finally, in 1951, Manchester University created a special chair of radio astronomy for him and, with the government guaranteeing part of the financing of his radio telescope, made the directorship of Jodrell Bank an official post. In 1980 he became professor emeritus at Manchester. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1955 and received the Royal Medal of the Society in 1960. He was knighted in 1961.

His books include Radio Astronomy (1951), The Individual and the Universe (1958), The Exploration of Space by Radio (1957; with Robert Hanbury Brown), The Exploration of Outer Space (1961), Discovering the Universe (1963), The Story of Jodrell Bank (1968), and Out of the Zenith (1973).

Lovell's first post-war research used radar to show that echoes could be obtained from daylight meteor showers invisible to the naked eye, for example, as the Earth passed through the tail of a comet in 1946. Having established the value of radio in this way, he showed by further studies that it was possible to make determinations of the orbits and radiants of meteors and thus prove that all meteors originate within the Solar System. With the same equipment, Lovell investigated the loud solar radio outburst in 1946, and in 1947 began to examine the aurora borealis.

In 1950, Lovell discovered that galactic radio sources emitted at a constant wavelength (frequency) and that the fluctuations (‘scintillation’) recorded on the Earth's surface (the subject of considerable scientific speculation) were introduced only as the radio waves met and crossed the ionosphere.

The year 1951 saw the beginning of the construction of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. Taking six years to build, under Lovell's close personal supervision, the gigantic dish has an alt-azimuth mounting with a parabolic surface of sheet steel; at the time it was the largest completely steerable radio telescope in existence, and still ranks as the third largest. It was completed just in time to track the Soviet Sputnik 1 (the first artificial satellite), thus confounding the criticism that too much money had been spent on the project. The instrument was renamed the Lovell Telescope in 1987.

From 1958 Lovell became interested in radio emission from flare stars. After two years at work, when his results were still inconclusive, he began a collaboration with Fred Whipple of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the USA. A joint programme was arranged for simultaneous radio and optical observations of flare stars using Baker Nunn cameras from the Smithsonian satellite tracking network. The first results were published in Nature in 1963; they opened up new avenues for the study of large-scale processes occurring in a stellar atmosphere. It was also shown at that time that the integrated radio emission from the flare stars may account for a fraction of the overall emission from our Galaxy. These combined optical and radio observations have also led to the confirmation, within stricter limits, of the constancy of the relative velocity of light and radio waves in space.

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