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'I'd really rather work with Blackett'


Cricket and doing research on the conductivity of thin films of metal
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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I remember that I was a keen cricketer and my prowess as a cricketer had obviously reached the university captain, and he came to me one day and found me in the library, and said, 'Lovell, we're beginning practice in a few weeks' time and we expect to see you'. And I'm amazed now to think that my reply was, 'I am sorry, but I've come here to work, not play cricket'. I mention that because it shows the revolution that had taken place in my life as a result of that one lecture, and it is something that had a great influence on what happened, many, many, many years later at Jodrell Bank which we shall come to later on.

Now, I graduated and then I did play cricket. I played a lot of cricket. I played cricket for three teams in Bristol and my own village, and I was very, very happily living there. Tyndall assumed that I would want to stay on and do research, and of course that was my great ambition.

Well, now the University of Bristol, the physics department in those days was not a unified department. It had a variety of researchers in progress, and I was allocated a very interesting task. Apparently there was a problem about the conductivity of thin films of metal, that at a certain stage, as you reduce the thickness of the film the normal conductivity disappeared and it became highly resistive and I was asked to investigate this problem. That was my first research. Now, it was fortunate that Bristol at that time had one of the finest glass blowers in the world. He was an expert on working with the... not the solder glass, but with Pyrex, which was then a fairly recent invention I believe. His name was Burrow and we became great friends and he would always give me priority because he knew that I was not afraid to do a bit of glass blowing myself and that I received a good workshop training during my university career. I was put in charge of ETS Appleyard.

Now, Appleyard was a very good physicist and he directed my research, although I did it all myself. I was not one of a pair or a team, I just worked alone, and I was... Appleyard suggested that I investigate the conductivity of some alkaline metals, which were relatively easy to deposit, so Burrough built me a most beautiful apparatus in Pyrex glass, in which I could heat rubidium first of all and through a very small aperture, it became effectively a very small atomic gun in which I could deposit increasing thicknesses of the rubidium on armoured glass surface, across which I measured the resistivity. The apparatus was evacuated to a very high degree with an automatic pump and a mercury system, and I suppose in those days I was working in a vacua which must be close to those which were then obtainable. The results of my two years research were very clear and that is that if I baked the whole Pyrex glass system in an oven, to nearly a softening point for 24 hours or more, and obtained a very, very clean glass surface, then right from the beginning of the deposition of the atoms of rubidium on the surface, I was measuring the normal conductivity or resistivity of the surface. So the answer was clear, that the reason why it had been found previously, the conductivity of the metal was poor, as it became thinner and thinner was that it became impure. Appleyard of course was not satisfied with these initial results and so I built or got Burrough to build me a series of equipment's in which I could introduce impurities onto the glass surface, as the thickness of the metal was increasing.

The results were decisive and they were published in a number of papers in the proceedings of the Royal Society, under the name of The Conductivity of Thin Metals... Thin Layers of the Alkaline Metals. I did all this by Tyndall who had obtained for me a small grant from the Department of Scientific Industrial Research at the DSIR, which was then the body which gave grants to students, to enable them to proceed to postgraduate work. Now, after two years I had so many results that I had done enough to obtain my thesis for the degree of PhD.

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: Jodrell Bank, Bristol, University of Bristol, Royal Society, The Conductivity of Thin Metals, Thin Layers of the Alkaline Metals, Department of Scientific Industrial Research, Arthur Mannering Tyndall, ETS Appleyard

Duration: 7 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008