Bernard Lovell, 98, was pioneering British radio astronomer
By Martin Weil,
Sir Bernard Lovell, the radio astronomer who was one of the 20th-century’s leaders in the age-old effort to understand the secrets of the heavens, died Aug. 6 at his home in the village of Swettenham, in the English county of Cheshire. He was 98.
His son Bryan Lovell confirmed the death and said he did not know the medical cause.
Much of Sir Bernard’s groundbreaking work revolved around the use of a powerful and innovative scientific instrument, the celebrated radio telescope he built and operated for many years at the Jodrell Bank observatory in northwest England.
Just as stars and galaxies make themselves known by beaming energy in the form of light, they may also reveal themselves by emitting radio waves. Much as the lenses or mirrors of optical telescopes gather visible light, the metal antennas of radio telescopes gather invisible radio waves.
As Sir Bernard was one of the first to show starting in the 1940s, these faint electromagnetic signals from remote reaches of the universe can be collected, analyzed and interpreted to discern basic information about the cosmos.
As one of the foremost figures in radio astronomy since its earliest days, Sir Bernard, an emeritus professor at the University of Manchester, was celebrated in science and beyond. The Jodrell Bank observatory, operated by the university and named for the place where it was built, has also become widely known.
The principal radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was completed in 1957 and has been named for Sir Bernard. With modifications, it is still used in cutting-edge work, contributing to the understanding of such cosmic phenomena as pulsars, stellar objects whose behavior is linked to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The technical and administrative details of building and operating his telescope did not cause Sir Bernard to lose sight of the deeper significance of his work.
In 1958, he was chosen by the BBC to deliver that year’s Reith Lectures, which touch on fundamental and enduring questions. In earlier years, the annual lectures had been delivered by such figures as Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Yielding little to Plato and Aristotle, not to mention Galileo and Isaac Newton, Sir Bernard spoke on “The Individual and the Universe.” Under that heading, he talked of the history of efforts to understand the workings of the sun and the planets, and to reveal the origins of matter.
In another lecture the following year, he selected as his topic “Radio Astronomy and the Structure of the Universe.”
In such ways, Sir Bernard — though said to be shy — occupied a place upon the public stage. As a kind of ambassador of astronomy, he handled with aplomb the news media questions that came his way during such events as the launch by the Soviet Union of the first artificial space satellite.
Few of his scientific contemporaries survive, but prominent figures and institutions recognized the significance of his passing. The BBC quoted Lord Martin Rees, the noted scientist who holds the title of Astronomer Royal. “Bernard Lovell ranks as one of the great visionary leaders of science,” Rees said.
In some of his outside interests, Sir Bernard projected an image that might seem particularly British. He was devoted to his hobbies, which included the growing of award-winning gooseberries and the scientific cultivation of trees.
An accomplished organist, he played at church for years. And he did not neglect sports. Particularly fond of cricket, he had been captain of two clubs.
Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell was born in Oldland Common, near Bristol, on Aug. 31, 1913.
In 1936, he received a doctorate in physics from the University of Bristol. His early work involved the use of a cloud chamber to detect and study cosmic rays. During World War II, he led a radar development group. At that time, he noted that radar sets, which pick up electromagnetic energy, detected what might be echoes from cosmic rays. His later work in radio astronomy was traceable to this observation.
In 1947, less than 20 years after the first radio waves had been detected from astronomical sources, Sir Bernard was credited with a major advance. It was the construction of what was said to be the world’s largest radio telescope, employing a parabolic antenna made of wire mesh, with one dimension measuring more than 100 feet.
According to Jodrell Bank, which he directed from 1945 to 1980, that device was credited with such accomplishments as detecting radio noise from the Great Nebula in Andromeda.
It was also said to have detected the remnants of a celebrated supernova, named for the classical astronomer Tycho Brahe, that no longer gives obvious visual evidence of its existence.
Then came a newer, bigger, more agile device. Although it measured 250 feet across at one point, it could be turned to home in on any chosen section of sky. This was the famed radio telescope that was ultimately named for him, in 1987 on its 30th anniversary.
In a curious 2009 episode reported in the British news media, Sir Bernard spoke of an alleged attempt by the Soviets to harm him as part of a Cold War scheme. At the time, one of his telescopes was regarded as part of a system to give early warning of possible Soviet rocket attacks.
His wife of 56 years, Joyce Chesterman Lovell, died in 1993. His daughter Susan Driver also died before him. Survivors include four children, Bryan Lovell of Hertford, England, Judith Spence of Bath, England, Roger Lovell of Ross-on-Wye, England, and Philippa Holmes of Surrey, England; 14 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
Sir Bernard, who was knighted in 1961, was a fellow of the Royal Society and a past president of the Royal Astronomical Society. He wrote several books, including a memoir he called “Astronomer by Chance” (1990). He was known for an interest in educating the public about science. But a recent British news media account described an incident in which that passion conflicted with another: his fondness for the game played with bat and ball.
As the anecdote was told, Sir Bernard was on the telephone on Sept. 12, 1959, when an unmanned Soviet spacecraft reached the moon.
Sir Bernard was asked what his observatory was going to do. “I am going to play cricket,” he replied.
(this report has been updated)