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How I came to work with Douglas Hartree

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'I'd really rather work with Blackett'
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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I think I then had a small grant, called a Colston Research Grant in order to continue with my research, but one day Tyndall said to me- Look here Lovell, I think it’s time you left here. You need a bit more competition and I was desolated, because I was then very happily playing cricket for the university and my other village in another team called the Bristol Optimists, and he said to me -And there are two people who have asked me if I had a young man. One is Blackett who is working at the Birkbeck College in London, and the other is Bragg who works in Manchester. Well of course the thought of working with Blackett was terribly exciting. He was a hero to those of us who were young in those days. He had been brought up and became a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He had fought in the Battle of Jutland. He had then resigned his commission in order to work with Rutherford in the Cavendish, and there he had demonstrated in an expansion chamber the disintegration of a nucleus which had been discovered by Rutherford in Manchester actually before he went to the Cavendish, and this photograph of the emergence of a proton from particles bombarding an oxygen nucleus, adorned every textbook of physics. Furthermore with Occhialini from Italy, he had discovered the positive electron. Now, it transpired recently that Anderson in America had discovered the positive electron independently, a matter of only weeks ahead of Blackett and Occhialini. Anyhow that sets the scene that I desperately wanted to go to London and work with Blackett. So on a summer’s day in August 1936, I reluctantly took a train from Bath to Bristol, and no doubt with the optimism of youth immediately expected Blackett to offer me the job. Well, he was very charming and he said- Well Lovell I’m very interested in you but I must interview another person and I will let you know the result. So by a previous arrangement and with great reluctance, instead of returning to Bath I got on a train at Euston and reluctantly travelled to Manchester. I arrived in Manchester on a dreary, wet evening and I thought, My goodness, this is the first and the last night I’m ever going to spend in this dreadful place. I remember standing outside the library in damp, foggy drizzle, and waiting for a bus to take me to somewhere to spend the night, and little knowing that I think forty years later, chances were to occur where I was made an honorary freeman in a spectacular ceremony in that very building. Anyhow that was much later, but it does indicate another accidental revolution that occurred in my early life. I was interviewed the next day by W.L. Bragg in the physics department with his staff, including I remember one of the staff called James who had been on the Antarctic expedition with Shackleton and they offered me the job of assistant lecturer, and I had the impudence to say and I really stil feel rather embarrassed about this. My reply was- Well I’m afraid I can’t tell you if I’m going to accept because you see I’d really rather work with Blackett in London. Well, that was really an abominable thing to say and I left Manchester with that attitude, returned home and went on a cricket tour in Devon, not realising that I had really, so to speak, put my foot in it, because I don’t think much love was lost between Bragg and Blackett in those days, and after a short time I began to get telegram messages from Bragg to say that he urgently needs a decision, otherwise he would appoint another person they had in mind, and I think it was Blackett who then told Bragg that they had decided to appoint a person called J.G. Wilson, so to carry on with his work on cosmic rays at Birkbeck College, because, as Blackett wrote to me, he said he was sorry he couldn’t appoint me but he felt bound to give preference to Wilson, who already had experience with the technique which Blackett was then using to investigate cosmic rays with the expansion chamber. So I reluctantly came to Manchester in 1936.

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: Colston Research Society, Bristol, Manchester, Royal Navy, Battle of Jutland, Birkbeck College, London, Italy, USA, Bath, Bristol, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Antarctic, Arthur Mannering Tyndall, Patrick Blackett, Lawrence Bragg, Giuseppe Occhialini, Carl David Anderson, Ernest Rutherford, Ernest Shackleton, J G Wilson

Duration: 6 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008