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Bernard Lovell

Bernard Lovell

Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell

(1913-08-31)31 August 1913
Oldland Common, Bristol, England
Died6 August 2012(2012-08-06) (aged 98)
Alma materUniversity of Bristol
Known for
Scientific career
  • Astronomy
  • physics
ThesisThe electrical conductivity of thin metallic films (1936)

Sir Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell OBE FRS (31 August 1913 – 6 August 2012) was an English physicist and radio astronomer. He was the first Director of Jodrell Bank Observatory, from 1945 to 1980.

Early life and education

Lovell was born at Oldland Common, Bristol in 1913, the son of Gilbert and Emily Laura Lovell. His childhood hobbies and interests included cricket and music, mainly the piano. He had a Methodist upbringing and attended Kingswood Grammar School.

Career and research

Lovell studied physics at the University of Bristol obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in 1934, and a PhD in 1936 for his work on the electrical conductivity of thin films. At this time, he also received lessons in music from Raymond Jones, a teacher at Bath Technical School and later an organist at Bath Abbey. The church organ was one of the main loves of his life, apart from science.

Lovell worked in the cosmic ray research team at the University of Manchester until the outbreak of the Second World War. At the beginning of the war, Lovell published his first book, Science and Civilization. During the war he worked for the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) developing radar systems to be installed in aircraft, among them H2S. In June 1942 he was involved in the recovery of a highly secret cavity magnetron from the wreckage of a Handley Page Halifax that had crashed killing a number of his colleagues, including EMI engineer Alan Blumlein, while on a test flight.

At the end of the Second World War, Lovell attempted to continue his studies of cosmic rays with an ex-military radar detector unit, but suffered much background interference from the electric trams on Manchester's Oxford Road. He moved his equipment to a more remote location, one which was free from such electrical interference, and where he established the Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Goostrey in Cheshire. It was an outpost of the university's botany department and had been a searchlight station during the war. In the course of his experiments, he was able to show that radar echoes could be obtained from daytime meteor showers as they entered the Earth's atmosphere and ionised the surrounding air. He was later able to determine the orbits of meteors in annual meteor showers to show they were in solar orbit and not of interstellar origin. With university funding, he constructed the then-largest steerable radio telescope in the world, which now bears his name: the Lovell Telescope. Over 50 years later, it remains a productive radio telescope, now operated mostly as part of the MERLIN and European VLBI Network interferometric arrays of radio telescopes.

Portrait by Reginald Gray, 1966, for the New York Times

In 2009, Lovell claimed he had been the subject of a Cold War assassination attempt during a 1963 visit to the Soviet Deep-Space Communication Centre (Eupatoria). Lovell alleged that his hosts tried to kill him with a lethal radiation dose because he was head of the Jodrell Bank space telescope when it was also being used as part of an early warning system for Soviet nuclear attacks. Lovell wrote a full account of the incident which, at his determination, was only published after his death.


In 1958, Lovell was invited by the BBC to deliver the annual Reith Lectures, a series of six radio broadcasts called The Individual and the Universe, in which he examined the history of enquiry into the solar system and the origin of the universe.

In 1959, he was invited to deliver the MacMillan Memorial Lecture to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject "Radio Astronomy and the Structure of the Universe".

In 1965 he was invited to co-deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Exploration of the Universe.

In 1975 he gave the presidential address (In the Centre of Immensities) to the British Association meeting in Guildford.

Awards and honours

Lovell won numerous awards including:

Lovell was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Beyond professional recognition, Lovell has a secondary school named after him in Oldland Common, Bristol, which he officially opened. A building on the QinetiQ site in Malvern is also named after him, as was the fictional scientist Bernard Quatermass, the hero of several BBC Television science-fiction serials of the 1950s, whose first name was chosen in honour of Lovell.

Personal life

In 1937, Lovell married Mary Joyce Chesterman (d. 1993) and they had two sons and three daughters. Their son Dr Bryan Lovell is a geologist at the University of Cambridge.

In later life Lovell was physically very frail; he lived in quiet retirement in the English countryside, surrounded by music, his books and a vast garden filled with trees he himself planted many decades before. Lovell died at home in Swettenham, Cheshire on 6 August 2012.

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