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Working with the Admiralty


Writing a paper on radar echoes from cosmic ray showers
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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I ought to return for a moment to the sporadic echoes which I mentioned I'd first seen at Staxton Wold on the day war was declared in 1939, and the operator had said they were ionosphere and I had thought they might have something to do with the high energy cosmic ray air showers. Well, oddly enough, when we were testing the AI equipment at St Athan in the winter of 1939, I still saw these odd echoes went flying at 10,000 feet and above, and clearly they'd suddenly appear. They had nothing to do with any target aircraft, and one day I had mentioned that Blackett frequently visited us and I... I mentioned this to him and he became very excited. He... you see, he had thought that the then mystery of the origin of these very high energy particles or gamma rays, we did not know impacting on the earth's atmosphere, might have really something fundamental to do with the cosmological problem and I remember him mentioning to me. He said, 'Look, we might be dealing with a case which has... which is something like the... something like Hubble's discovery of the red shift. We do not know what it is, something extremely high energy in the Universe, same as these particles'. He said, 'So, for Heaven's sake, write up something about it and there'll be a nice job for you if the war ever ends'.

So I had, while we were still at Worth Matravers... I had written a draft paper on the radar echoes, it's called Radar Echoes from Cosmic Ray Showers. Well, you know, we were being... we were hectic then. We were being bombed and strafed. There was no library and my account which I sent to Blackett was pretty elementary, but unknown to me he rewrote this and added a bit of finesse to it and he told me he did this while he was sheltering in an air raid shelter in Westminster. And he sent the paper to the Royal Society and completely unknown to me, the Royal Society published this paper by Blackett and Lovell, On Radar Echoes from Cosmic Ray Showers, in the Royal Society. It appeared in 1942. The date is important because I will return to that later on in my story.

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: Megan Argo Alastair Gunn

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.

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.

Tags: RAF Staxton Wold, World War II, St Athan, Hubble Space Telescope, Universe, Worth Matravers, Westminster, Royal Society, Patrick Blackett

Duration: 3 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 02 October 2009