Sir Bernard Lovell

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Sir Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell

The English astronomer Sir Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell (born 1913) pioneered in radio astronomy and founded the Jodrell Bank Laboratory.

Bernard Lovell was born Aug. 31, 1913, in the village of Oldland Common (Gloucestershire), Great Britain. At the age of 20, he received his bachelor's degree in physics from Bristol University; three years later, in 1936, he received his doctorate, also in physics. He was appointed assistant lecturer in physics at the University of Manchester. In 1937 he married Mary Joyce Chesterman, a teacher, who collaborated with her husband in writing popular books on astronomy. They had two sons and three daughters.

At the outbreak of World War II Lovell joined the Air Ministry Research Establishment and soon became head of the blind-bombing and antisubmarine groups; in this capacity, he helped develop the use of airborne radar systems in Great Britain. At the end of the war, in 1945, Lovell returned to the University of Manchester as lecturer in physics. He rose rapidly through the academic ranks, becoming senior lecturer in 1947 and reader in 1949. His researches during these years were a direct outgrowth of his wartime researches on radar detection techniques combined with his desire to resume his prewar cosmic-ray studies.

Early Meteor Studies

When bouncing radio waves off cosmic-ray showers and detecting the echoes, Lovell observed many transient (short-term) echoes, which he concluded were from meteor trails. Carefully choosing a known comet with desirable characteristics, Lovell, in October 1946, directed his radar equipment skyward and proved beyond question that the transient meteor-trail echoes he had observed earlier were signals bounced off the tails of comets. His meteor studies lead to the discoveries that meteors orbited within the solar system (and did not come from beyond it), and that science was underestimating the number and intensity of daytime meteor showers.

Technical disturbing effects from the city of Manchester during this work convinced Lovell of the need for a country location, and he received permission to establish the Jodrell Bank Laboratory in Cheshire, of which he became director in 1951. That same year, a special academic chair was created for him at Manchester University: he became professor of radio astronomy. Using Michelson stellar interferometric techniques, Lovell proved that radio sources are constantly emitting "point sources" of energy, and not, as had been previously thought, diffuse interstellar clouds of ionized hydrogen. The previously detected fluctuations in radio sources were shown to be imposed on them by the earth's ionosphere, in much the same way as the earth's atmosphere causes the twinkling of a star at optical wavelengths.

Development of Telescope at Jodrell

The potentialities of radio astronomy were therefore clear, and in 1952 Lovell convinced the British government and the Nuffield Foundation to jointly finance the construction of the largest, completely steerable radio telescope in the world at Jodrell Bank, now part of the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratory. As it developed, the huge telescope, 250 feet in diameter, was completed in time to track the first artificial earth satellite, the Russian Sputnik, in October 1957. Communications work and future trackings, including that of the American manned moon landing in July 1969, gained for Lovell and Jodrell Bank a great deal of publicity. His work in radio astronomy led to the 1963 discovery of quasars and the development of knowledge about pulsars and red dwarf stars.

Beginning in 1958, Lovell carried out much research on the characteristics of flare stars. In 1960, he began collaborating with Fred Whipple of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in this work. In 1955 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; in 1960 he received the Royal Medal of the society; and in 1961 he was knighted.

Further Reading

Sir Bernard Lovell, in collaboration with his wife, wrote a number of books on astronomy, one of the later being Discovering the Universe (1967). For his work on the radio telescope and for biographical information see Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs, Astronomy of the Twentieth Century (1962), and Colin A. Ronan, Astrnomers Royal (1969).

Additional Sources

The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1984, p. 101-102.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 210.

Lovell, Bernard, Astronomer by Chance, New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Lovell, Bernard, Emerging Cosmology, New York: Praeger, 1985.

Lovell, Bernard, In the Center of Immensities, New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

Lovell, Bernard, The Jodrell Bank Telescopes, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lovell, Bernard, Man's Relation to the Universe, San Francisco, Freeman, 1975.

Lovell, Bernard, The Origins and International Economics of Space Exploration, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973.

Lovell, Bernard, Out of the Zenith: Jodrell Bank 1957-1970, London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Lovell, Bernard, Voice of the Universe: Building the Jodrell Bank Telescope, New York: Praeger, 1987.

Graham-Smith, Francis and Bernard Lovell, Pathways to the Universe, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Saward, Dudley, Bernard Lovell: A Biography, London: R. Hale, 1984. □

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Lovell, Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard (1913– ) English astronomer. From 1951 to 1981, Lovell was director of the Jodrell Bank experimental station for radio astronomy near Manchester, England, where he oversaw the construction of the world's first large steerable radio telescope.