Technology & Science

British astrophysicist Bernard Lovell dies

British astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, who pioneered the field of radio astronomy and came up with the idea for the Lovell Radio Telescope in Manchester, one of the largest steerable telescopes in the world, has died at the age of 98.

Creator of Lovell Radio Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory at University of Manchester

Sir Bernard Lovell, who died Monday at the age of 98, first came to prominence during the Second World War after he helped develop a radar system for the Royal Air Force that enabled British bombers to better locate their targets. He went on to create a ground-breaking radiotelescope and observatory at the University of Manchester that continue to play a key role in astrophysical research. (University of Manchester)

British astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, who pioneered the field of radio astronomy and came up with the idea for the Lovell radio telescope in Manchester, one of the largest steerable telescopes in the world, has died at the age of 98.

Lovell died Monday, according to a statement Tuesday from the University of Manchester, where Lovell remained an emeritus professor of radioastronomy.

The university called Lovell a "great man" who helped build an instrument that became an icon of British science and engineering and left behind an immense legacy in his chosen field of radio astronomy. The study of the radio-frequency signals emitted by celestial objects such as stars, galaxies, quasars and pulsars created a new way of looking at the universe and led to the discovery of countless new galactic objects.

"We are all greatly saddened by Sir Bernard's death," said University of Manchester president and vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell in a statement. "He was a towering figure, not just in Manchester or the U.K. but globally."

Helped develop H2S radar in WW2

Born in 1913 in Gloucestershire in southwest England, Lovell studied at the University of Bristol and began working in the University of Manchester's physics department in 1936.

He left Manchester during the Second World War to help develop the H2S ground-scanning radar system for the Royal Air Force, work for which he was later given the Order of the British Empire.

He returned to the university in 1945 and began studying cosmic rays, using some of the radar equipment he worked with during the war.

He established the Jodrell Bank Observatory later that year at a site in Cheshire county south of Manchester, which was being used by the university's botany department.

He turned it into world-renowned centre of astronomical research when he and engineer Sir Charles Husband built a radiotelescope there in 1957.

Unlike optical telescopes, which detect light, radiotelescopes use large antennas to detect radio-frequency signals emitted by objects in space and can therefore reveal sections of space not accessible to an optical telescope because of obstructions like cosmic dust.

Today, some of the world's largest radio telescopes are in fact arrays of multiple radio antennas spread across vast distances and linked through optical fibres.

Observatory still key to astrophysical research

At the time it was built, the 76-metre Lovell Telescope was the world's largest and is still considered the third-largest steerable telescope today.

One of its first tasks was to track the rocket that carried Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite launched into orbit by the former Soviet Union in 1957.

The telescope and the observatory Lovell created are widely used today to study pulsars and test some of the fundamental theories of  modern physics, such as the general theory of relativity.

The observatory is also set to become the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array Organization, the body overseeing the building of what will be the world's largest array of radio telescopes, with a central core and receiving stations spread over thousands of kilometres in Africa and Australia.

Loved cricket, countryside

The university described Lovell as "warm and generous" in person and said he was an avid cricketer and amateur musician who spent many years playing the organ at a church in the village of Swettenham where he lived.

Lovell also created an arboretum in the village on grassland he purchased in 1948. In 2007, he spoke of his love of the property and the importance of nature to his intellectual process for the Web of Stories project. 

"I was brought up in the country," he said. "I love the county. I always disliked towns. I like going to London or New York, but after a few days or nights, I want to get back to the country."

Throughout his entire life, he said, "the planting of trees and shrubs has been a tremendous relief.

"I gave the BBC Reith Lectures in 1958, and the kind reviewer said they'd been written 'over the spade' — a truism, because one sorts out many difficult intellectual problems when one is not thinking about them."

Lovell is survived by four of his five children, 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.