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An aborted trip to France in 1939


Work on cosmic ray showers and an influx of refugees from Europe
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Blackett then suggested that I studied the very large cosmic ray air showers, which had been discovered by Pierre Auger in Paris. They were then, and I think still are known as the Auger showers, and the question was: what is the energy of the particles from space, impacting on the upper atmosphere to give such energetic processes in the atmosphere?

I then worked first of all with Jånossy, a refugee from Hungary who had built an enormous block of lead to study these particles, and secondly with JG Wilson, whom Blackett had brought with him from London, and Wilson and I had set up two cloud chambers, separated by increasing distances in the Schuster Laboratory and measuring within an arrangement of Geiger counters, so that they were only triggered when there were particles in both of these chambers. And we very quickly measured particles of very high energies, or rather the result of the impact on our equipment, very high energies.

And I think my memory may be not quite right but I believe that we wrote letters to Nature. I wrote one with Wilson and one with Jånossy, in which we said we were dealing with particles which had impacted on the atmosphere with energies of the order of 10¹6 electrons volts. Well, one might think that all this was a very happy time, but it was not. There was a terrible background, which began in Bristol with Hitler re-arming, marching across... beginning his march across Europe into the Rhinelands, with Mussolini invading Abyssinia and then in 1936 with the civil war beginning in Spain, so the time was full of great anxiety. And I remember in Bristol there were already many refugees working, and I had quite a large room in which I was studying my conductivity rubidium films and one day a German joined me. He was working on something different, but in another part of the room and I certainly did not like him, and in the next room a person called Fuchs arrived.

Well, now... Fuchs I disliked from the very beginning. He was extremely inquisitive and I never got on with him. Fortunately, he... we were not in the same room and I might remind you, though it’s not part of my story, that he was, after the war, arrested as a spy because... he was working at Harwell... because of releasing the secrets of the atomic bomb to the Russians. That is by the way. Most of my association with the refugees was extremely happy and profitable ones.

Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), British radio astronomer and founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, received an OBE in 1946 for his work on radar, and was knighted in 1961 for his contribution to the development of radio astronomy. He obtained a PhD in 1936 at the University of Bristol. His steerable radio telescope, which tracked Sputnik across the sky, is now named the Lovell telescope.

Listeners: Alastair Gunn Megan Argo

Alastair Gunn is an astrophysicist at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester. He is responsible for the coordination and execution of international radio astronomical observations at the institute and his professional research concerns the extended atmospheres of highly active binary stars. Alastair has a deep interest and knowledge of the history of radio astronomy in general and of Jodrell Bank in particular. He has written extensively about Jodrell Bank's history.

Megan Argo is an astronomer at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory researching supernovae and star formation in nearby starburst galaxies. As well as research, she is involved with events in the Observatory's Visitor Centre explaining both astronomy and the history of the Observatory to the public.

Tags: Paris, Auger showers, Hungary, London, Schuster Laboratory, Geiger counter, Nature, Bristol, World War II, Europe, Rhineland, Abyssinia, Spain, Harwell, Patrick Blackett, Pierre Auger, Lajos Jánossy, J G Wilson, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolin

Duration: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008