With the passing of Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell, the world has lost one of the great astronomy pioneers of the past century. He died on 6 August 2012 at his home in the village of Swettenham, UK.

Lovell was born on 13 August 1913 in the village of Oldland Common in Gloucestershire, UK. He and his family were deeply involved with their church and with the local village cricket team. That upbringing greatly influenced him; he remained an ardent churchgoer—he played the organ for the church in Swettenham—and became captain of his local cricket team. After studying physics at the University of Bristol, where he received his BS in 1934 and his PhD in 1936 on the subject of the electrical conductivity of thin films, he went to the University of Manchester to research cosmic rays.

As World War II neared, Lovell was asked by his director, Patrick Blackett, to work on the development of airborne radar systems. For his leadership of the team that developed H2S radar, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. In his radar work, Lovell became aware of sporadic echoes whose origins were unknown. He thought they might be due to reflections from cosmic-ray air showers, so when the war ended, he acquired army radar equipment to investigate them. To avoid interference from trams in Manchester, he set up his equipment in a field at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, which was used by the university’s botany department.

Lovell was soon detecting echoes, and it was not long before he realized that they came from the trails of ionized gas produced as meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere and that radar was an excellent tool for their study. That work flourished, and the university acquired the adjacent field, which became known as the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station. Lovell was able to attract a superb staff of young scientists. He decided to build a large, 66-meter antenna, one of whose major achievements would be to make a crude radio map of the great galaxy in Andromeda. The antenna was located on the ground and was thus only able to observe the regions of the sky that passed overhead.

Lovell realized that a radio telescope that was at least 66 meters in diameter and could observe any part of the sky would be a major asset. Engineer Charles Husband developed Lovell’s concept into what was to become known as the Mk1 telescope. The design underwent several changes, most notably from a wire mesh to a solid steel surface, and the cost escalated from an estimated £60 000 ($168 000) to approximately £650 000, money that the university did not have. Court cases resulting from the nonpayment of fees were looming, and the engineers testing and calibrating the telescope’s control system left the site.

The telescope, as well as Lovell’s reputation, was saved by the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1. The military was keen to know if the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that had launched Sputnik into orbit could be detected by radar. The telescope was rapidly put into service and equipped with two powerful radar systems, and just a few days later, it detected the third stage of the ICBM as it flew over Cumbria. Criticism of Lovell and his “white elephant” turned to praise, and the telescope was used to assist both the Russians and the Americans in monitoring their early space missions.

In the early 1970s, the telescope was given a major upgrade and became known as the Mk1A. That rather uninspiring name was changed when, on its 30th birthday in 1987, it was renamed the Lovell Telescope. It is still the third largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, and it received a further major upgrade at the turn of the millennium. Coupled with receiver systems operating just a few degrees above absolute zero, it is now performing better than at any time in its history. It continues to play a major role in the study of pulsars and tests of Einstein’s theories, and it acts as the westernmost element of an array of radio telescopes that stretches across Europe to form the world’s highest-resolution imaging system.

One of the last major developments under Lovell’s directorship was the building of MERLIN (Multi-Element Radio-Linked Interferometer Network), which now stretches 217 km across the UK from the Welsh border to Cambridge. Its antennas were recently linked by fiber-optic cables, making the network one of the most powerful radio telescope arrays in the world.

Lovell was a warm and generous person who, during his long retirement, regularly visited the observatory to learn about the latest developments and discoveries. He tended the arboretum that he had created around his house at Swettenham, watched cricket at the Lancashire County Cricket Ground, and loved listening to music on his vacuum-tube hi-fi system.

The Lovell Telescope, standing tall over the Cheshire countryside, is an icon of British science and technology and will provide a lasting memorial to Lovell’s life and work. We will miss him.

Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell

Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell

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