He started recording cosmic phenomena while sitting in a deck chair surrounded by Cheshire gooseberries. His team had only crude military radar equipment and a keen sense of curiosity. But Sir Bernard Lovell went on to become father of modern cosmology long before Professor Brian Cox started pondering the wonders of the universe.
I’ve come to walk in Lovell’s footsteps at the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, the observatory and science park where the Grade I listed Lovell Telescope, named after its founder, has added a frisson of science fiction to the Cheshire countryside since 1957.
Last weekend brought the opening of the site’s First Light Pavilion, a dome-shaped building mirroring the shape and scale of the all-seeing-eye telescope. It hosts the permanent exhibition, “The Story of Jodrell Bank”, a social-history journey in six chapters from the lo-fi origins of the site to the present day.
Featuring archive material and personal memorabilia from the Lovell family, it celebrates the way Jodrell Bank crosses over from science to heritage. The exhibition complements activities in the other pavilions, which focus more on the science behind stars, explaining concepts such as pulsars, quasars, and the Big Bang.
“We have a perception that science is only found in laboratories and often highly regulated, but Sir Bernard Lovell always celebrated the beauty of science. He understood that science is an integral part of our heritage and culture,” says Professor Teresa Anderson, director of the Jodrell Bank Center for Engagement at the University of Manchester.
Jodrell Bank was founded in 1945 as a base for Lovell’s pioneering work on radar. By 1950, his team had detected radiowaves beyond our own galaxy – the nebula in Andromeda. When the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite in 1957, it lit the touchpaper for the international Space Race, with Jodrell’s Lovell Telescope charged with tracking its rocket carrier.
The center went on to play a pivotal role during the 60s as the UK’s early-warning system for missile attacks against the backdrop of The Cold War. Yet its research into radio astronomy also quietly continued, with politically neutral collaborations between Russian and American scientists. The scientific, heritage and cultural importance of Jodrell Bank was finally recognised in 2019 when it was awarded Unesco World Heritage status.
The heart of the new exhibition is a control desk for hands-on practice at driving a radio telescope, while other interactive displays include a chance to experience a meteor shower and crawl into a black hole.
Huge, recycled panels from the underside of the Lovell Telescope, replaced during recent renovations, form the backdrop to projected animations. There is even a section devoted to Jodrell Bank’s role in popular culture, including some vintage Doctor Who footage of Tom Baker as The Doctor and Anthony Ainley as The Master.
Most moving of all is a solitary standard lamp next to a portrait of Lovell with an audio diary in which the founding director describes devoting his life to science. After exploring the exhibition, I head next door to the Space Dome for an immersive audiovisual show about the history of Jodrell Bank and a planetarium-style show about our quest for knowledge of the universe.
The new pavilion, which sits within the arboretum designed by Lovell himself, forms the starting point of a new loop around the complex, leading on to the Space Pavilion and a visit to the Lovell Telescope before finishing in the Planet Pavilion with its café, gift Shop and clockwork orrery, a moving model of the solar system believed to be the largest of its kind in the world.
Hub of ideas
Jodrell Bank has come a long way since its post-war origins, hosting the Bluedot festival of electronic music each summer — this year headlined by Björk. The travel hub city of Chester is less than an hour away, while the surrounding Cheshire countryside is home to other heritage attractions, such as the Anderton Boat Lift and the historic estate at Tatton Park.
But this new exhibition explains how Jodrell Bank remains true to Sir Bernard Lovell’s founding vision as a place of ideas and collaboration. Lovell may have been an astronomer by chance, but he went on to become the father of modern cosmology and his Cold War intelligence work feels strangely prescient today.
“I think we need Jodrell Bank more than ever,” says Professor Anderson. “It’s part of our quest for knowledge as humans and the international collaboration it has always fostered is important to solve our global problems.”
“It was born out of the post-war boom and forged in the white heat of technology but, going forward,” she smiles, “we can’t just leave science to the scientists.”
It is possible to knock a sizeable amount off the price of a Book time slots adults £12, children £8 (online purchases are annual tickets); Dome Show £6/£4 extra; parking £4 extra. For more: jodrellbank.net,