British radio telescope genius Sir Bernard Lovell dies
Scientist the Soviets tried to kill was 98
Sir Bernard Lovell - the brilliant British physicist whose inventions observed cosmic rays and ended up on the front lines of the Cold War - has died at the age of 98.
Bristol-born Sir Bernard is best-known for establishing the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory, whose Lovell radio telescope was used to conduct pioneering research into rays of charged subatomic particles from outer space.
Sir Bernard Credit: The University of Manchester
The telescope remains one of the most capable of its kind in the world nearly six decades after it was built in 1957. It is the third-biggest steerable radio telescope on the planet, standing 89m high with a bowl 76.2m in diameter, and is used to research pulsar-grade stars and test Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
It was constructed after Sir Bernard, who had studied astrophysics before the outbreak of the Second World War, lashed together radar systems left over from the conflict to examine electromagnetic radiation from space.
But although his telescope was designed to investigate cosmic rays, it played a role in the ensuing Cold War: the observatory was used to track the launch of Russia's Sputnik satellite and provide early warning of a missile attack from the cold communist state.
That led to an assassination attempt on the academic during a trip behind the Iron Curtain. Sir Bernard said he had been ill for a month following one visit to Russia in 1963, where he believes he was bombarded with high doses of radiation by a Khrushchev-era radio telescope.
Sir Bernard said:
It is true I was ill for quite a long time, but I recovered. It took me a month or so but I recovered. I think they had an extremely powerful transmitter of the type we had on the telescope for planetary research.
The radiation from this telescope here was so dangerous that we would never use it at an elevation below about 15 degrees because of the risk of endangering people's brains. It was a sinister time and a lot of my compatriots who went to the Soviet Union in those days in the early 1960s never did return, or when they did return they never survived. I was one of the fortunate ones.
Astrophysicists across Britain have paid tribute to Sir Bernard following his death on 6 August. Boffins at the Jodrell Centre said in a statement: "Sir Bernard’s legacy is immense, extending from his wartime work to his pioneering contributions to radio astronomy and including his dedication to education and public engagement with scientific research. A great man, he will be sorely missed." ®