The Lovell Telescope

Just becoming a teenager, I remember the fuss in the papers about some professor who was wasting taxpayers’ money on a new-fangled radio telescope in Cheshire. It was late and well over budget. Then in October 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. It became apparent that the near-complete telescope at Jodrell Bank was the only instrument in the world capable of locating and tracking Sputnik and its carrier rocket. Overnight the fortunes of the telescope changed, and within weeks it was fully operational.

Bernard Lovell, whose baby it was, went from zero to hero almost overnight. He had successfully created the largest radio telescope on earth at 250m diameter, fully steerable so could be pointed in any upward direction.

You can investigate the story and exploits of this wonderful piece of technology at the Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre in Cheshire. You’ll find out, for example, that the technology emerged from wartime research into radar, and Lovell scrounged parts from the armed forces for his early experiments.

It’s also quite beautiful, and awe-inspiring when the wheels are set in motion and the disc slowly rotates in two dimensions.

The telescope is still operational today and an integral part of world radio telescope networks, still the third largest. In 2019 Jodrell Bank was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One story from the exhibition sticks in my mind. Lovell visited fellow scientists in the USSR to discuss the technology. During the visit he was asked to set up a radio telescope in Russia, which would have meant defecting. After Lovell refused, he believed members of the KGB tried to wipe his memories of the visit using some sort of radiation, he was very sick for a brief period on his return. Le plus ça change….

Pluto might be a planet again. Or not.

Pluto disappeared from our local Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope visitor centre some years ago, when it was decategorized from being a planet. It no longer seemed to exist, which seemed a bit unnecessary. Also, as one interested in astrology, Pluto is a planet of great significance here, and has certainly not disappeared from use.

So I was very interested to see this great post by Matthew Wright. He’s also questioning our tendency to classify everything into categories that may then obscure things of real significance, such as the astrological significance of Pluto!

Matthew Wright

Remember Pluto the planet? And then Pluto the not a planet? Well, it’s back. Possibly. Apparently an informal forum held the other week came down in favour of reinstating the ‘planet’ classification. Of course these things carry little weight with the International Astronomical Union.

Pluto in true colour, as seen by New Horizons. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

What interests me is the way that the debate over whether Pluto is, or is not a planet also sums up the biggest flaw in modern human analytical philosophy; our need to categorise everything and fit it into patterns and slots as a part of being ‘scientific’.

In a way this is not surprising. We appear to be hard-wired to see patterns everywhere. Sometimes they even exist. The ‘evolutionary psychological’ explanation is that it conferred an advantage during our very, very long hunter-gatherer period. Humans who were better at identifying patterns were…

View original post 862 more words