On this day, 21 June, in 1946 Bernard Lovell sent a fifteen-page report to his former PhD supervisor and now academic collaborator Patrick Blackett about his early research using redundant wartime radar apparatus to detect cosmic rays. His experiments began with failed attempts in central Manchester between 12 September 1945 and then continued at Jodrell Bank in December 1945.
His research summary report outlined the research he had conducted and, as Lovell later described in his autobiography Astronomer by Chance, “by an analysis and argument that now seems tortuous” Lovell remained convinced that the echoes he was receiving on his radar equipment might be caused by high-energy cosmic ray particles. Lovell outlined plans for improving the equipment and continuing what he considered to be a promising line of research.
While his outline of the multiple pieces of equipment and aerials required to continue his research shaped the early activities and developments at Jodrell Bank, his research soon took a different tack. Lovell was persuaded by James Stanley Hey that the echoes on the surplus ex-Army radar equipment he was using were meteor trails and not cosmic rays.
Hey was a former undergraduate at Manchester, a fellow wartime radar researcher, and Lovell’s collaborator for many years. He had also supplied the initial surplus radar equipment that Lovell used first in central Manchester and later at Jodrell Bank.
Following on from this, Lovell soon realised that radio astronomy rather than radar astronomy offered a more promising avenue of research. Rather than using radar equipment to detect astronomical objects, Lovell soon realised that collecting radio emissions from celestial objects offered far more potential for astronomical research.
To this end, Lovell first constructed a transit telescope 218 feet in diameter in 1947 which made the first detection of radio waves from the Andromeda galaxy and proved that astronomical objects from outside of our own galaxy emitted radio waves and could be detected. This provided lessons and a model for the Lovell Telescope (then known as the Mark I telescope) which first began operation in 1957.
Without these early mistakes, Lovell would not have continued his work at Jodrell Bank and the Jodrell Bank observatory might not have become the centre for world-class astrophysics research it is today.
Blogger: Dr Elizabeth Bruton is Heritage Officer at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre.
The heritage work at Jodrell Bank is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of our ‘First Light at Jodrell Bank’ project.