iCHSTM 2013 Programme • Version 5.3.6, 27 July 2013 • ONLINE (includes late changes)
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Jodrell Bank Observatory excursion (Thursday)
Event code: X224
Thu 25 July, 09:15–13:00

Internationally, the Jodrell Bank Observatory may be known chiefly to astronomers. In the UK, it is a cultural phenomenon, standing for more than half a century as an icon of scientific and technological enterprise.

Jodrell Bank will forever be associated with Sir Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), its founding director and the long-term leader of the University’s radioastronomy project. After developing radar systems in the Second World War, Lovell returned to Manchester to work on cosmic ray detection – initially on the old campus site across Oxford Road from the Congress venue.

Jodrell Bank entered history thanks to the electric tramcars running up and down Oxford Road, which interfered persistently with the detector equipment. Enquiring after quieter University-owned sites led Lovell to what was then a research outpost of the Department of Botany, a little over 30km away in the flat farming country of Cheshire. Astrophysics soon became the main business of the site – though its origins and setting are reflected in features such as an arboretum, established under Lovell’s direction in the 1970s.

Jodrell Bank as an icon, however, reduces to one image: the vast dish of the Mark 1 radio telescope towering incongruously over the Cheshire plain. 76 metres in diameter, it was by far the largest steerable dish in the world at the time of its 1957 completion (it is presently the third-largest). The assembly is one of the grandest examples of the thrifty repurposing of wartime surplus: two huge gun turret bearings, reclaimed from battleships, became its altitude rotators.

The costs of the telescope project overran hugely, threatening disaster for Lovell and the University. With fairytale timing, however, the detector became operational days before the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and was the only device on earth capable of tracking Sputnik’s carrier rocket. Lovell showed great skill in handling both policy-making and public audiences as he built on this opportunity to weave an integral role for the Observatory in the technoscientific infrastructure of the Cold War.

Over the years, the regular appearance of Bernard Lovell and the dish in popular books, films and television cemented both as perennial reference-points in the consciousness of the nation. Science-fiction audiences of the 1950s thrilled to the exploits of Professor Bernard Quatermass, named in Lovell’s honour, just as a later generation stared as Tom Baker, the longest-running star of Doctor Who, took his final bow with a dramatic fall from what – though not named as such – is unquestionably a representation of the leviathan dish.

 Today, the Observatory site is managed as part of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics within the University of Manchester. Reflecting the trend to ever-larger and more spatially distributed data-gathering systems, the Centre serves as the hub for e-MERLIN, the British contribution to the European VLBI Network collaboration, and the headquarters of the international Square Kilometre Array consortium. Yet the towering dish, and the immense public recognition and even affection it inspires, have also cemented the site as a base for public and widening-participation activities via the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre on site. 

Our visit includes a tour of the site with access to the Space Pavilion exhibition, Planet Pavilion gallery (including a newly installed mechanical orrery), gardens and arboretum.

This excursion is only available by prior reservation through the University’s conference services office: please reserve your place at the time of registration for the Congress, or contact mcc.reg@manchester.ac.uk for further information. There is a charge for this excursion.

Coaches will run from outside University Place directly to Jodrell Bank, returning in time for lunch.

For present-day astronomy research, see the Observatory website at www.jb.man.ac.uk.

For current public activities, see the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre website at www.jodrellbank.net.

For the history of the Observatory and its public representation, start with Jon Agar, Science and spectacle: the work of Jodrell Bank in postwar British culture, Harwood Academic 1998.

For a focus on the physical development of the site, and its role in cultural memory, see Mark Edmonds, ‘When they come to model Heaven: big science and the monumental in post-war Britain’, Antiquity 84 (2010), 774-795.