Window on the Universe

Sir Bernard Lovell, 1913 -2012 As a young astronomer growing up in Manchester, there wasn’t much to see. The omnipresent cumulus clouds and the glow of the sodium lamps reduced the night sky to a puce blanket of damp. If I was lucky, I saw the Moon, and on such rare occasions I looked up and stood still, transfixed by its brilliance.

The stars were a rare treat, although even on a clear night, only the brightest stars were visible. This didn’t stop the Edwardians, who built the charming Godlee Observatory, a steam punk doll’s house complete with a Grubb telescope (more on those another time!) right in the heart of the city centre. Of course, the city wasn’t nearly as large in 1903 as it is today, and light pollution wasn’t such a problem. The clouds of course, thanks to the proximity of the Pennines, were still there, hanging about and generally blocking the view.

Clouds are a real problem to traditional astronomers, who rely on visible light. They are, however, not such an issue to radio astronomers, since radio waves are unaffected by the clouds. This brings me to the second great astronomical site in the fair city of Manchester; Jodrell Bank, with the awe inspiring dish of the Lovell Radio Telescope, 76m in diameter, perched on a rotating cradle of white steel.

Every night, I would see the image of that wonderful telescope appear in the opening credits of North West Tonight, the local news program, and sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d glimpse it from the train window as I went past. In those breathless seconds, I’d stare out of the window, trying to sear the image of that marvellous instrument onto my mind. Only once have I been to see it up close, taken on a day trip by my parents when I was only twelve. What a day. While most girls were listening to Whitney Houston and Shakespeare’s Sister, I was into other kinds of stars. For me, Jodrell Bank was a place of pilgrimage and its director, and the creator of the radio telescope that bears his name, Sir Bernard Lovell, was a hero.

It was with great sadness that I read today of Sir Bernard’s death, at the grand old age of 98. He was a pioneer in the field of radio astronomy, and a great advocate for the public understanding of science. He also achieved the impossible; he found a way to observe the sky from Manchester.

By way of tribute to him, here is a poem by Patric Dickinson. God speed Sir Bernard Lovell.

Jodrell Bank

Who were they, what lonely men
Imposed upon the fact of night
The fiction of constellations
And made commensurable
The distances between
Themselves, their loves, and their doubt
Of governments and nations?
Who made the dark stable

When the light was not? Now
We receive the blind codes
Of spaces beyond the span
Of our myths, and a long dead star
May only echo how
There are no loves nor gods
Men can invent to explain
How lonely all men are.


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