19 September 2014

England: Jodrell Bank Observatory

It was another hot sunny day in Cheshire on the day we visited Jodrell Bank’s huge Lovell telescope. 

This landmark is visible for miles
It was an interesting place but expensive for what you get (£7 per adult – that’s currently NZ$14 or US$11.50), and it is a rather bizarre combination of radio telescope facility and discovery centre, and arboretum with a nationally important collection of crab apple and rowan trees. It is unclear why this particular combination has arisen, except that the property is owned by the University of Manchester and the 35-hectare arboretum comes under the auspices of its Plant Sciences Department while the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics is part of the university’s School of Physics and Astronomy. Also, Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank and the man after whom the telescope is named, had a great interest in trees – at the nearby village of Swettenham, you can visit the Lovell Quinta Arboretum, a 28-acre property with over 2500 trees and shrubs, which Lovell developed from grassland. It seems likely then that Lovell encouraged the similar development of the property at Jodrell Bank.

To be honest, the garden seemed much smaller than 35 hectares and was not at all an inspiration for the green-fingered or those who aspire to be so. The potting shed was not open – though the website says this small café is open from 11 till 3 during the summer holidays; the three beehives where you could, at set times, watch a beekeeper dig out some honey from the hives were a total apiarian understatement – though I’m in full support of anything that helps to protect the dwindling bee population; and the so-called Galaxy Gardens by a well-known British garden personality were also disappointing – though perhaps a visit in the spring when the crab apples are in blossom, or in the autumn, for the colour, would have been better. On the positive side, there was a very friendly cat!

The people in this photo help to show the enormous size of the telescope
Although I had a lovely chat about New Zealand with the ticket-seller who has family in Hamilton (the city nearest where I was born), the discovery centre and space centre were also disappointing, particularly as this was during the school holidays, which I would have thought would be a peak time for visitors. There were some interesting displays and activities to engage the interest of the astronomically challenged but some were out of order and the telescope itself appeared to out of action for maintenance – not that you can normally see anything, as it’s a radio, not optical telescope, but the printout of where it was ‘looking’ was just one more thing on the list of those not working.

Sarah and I had fun in front of the infrared camera, where you could see yourself on the screen – see photo. And we also enjoyed the display where you could use a touch screen to watch a series of short videos by some of the people who work at Jodrell Bank, explaining what their work entails, what their areas of interest are, etc. A video tour of the telescope was also interesting, though unfortunately a rather amateur production and with poor image quality, obviously not designed for projection on a large screen.

Playing with the reflections ... and a selfie

Still, this huge beast was the biggest telescope in the world when it was built back in the 1970s and, at 89 metres tall and 76 metres across, it is still the third-largest steerable telescope in the world. And it is certainly an impressive structure when seen from below. There is a path around part, but not all, of the base of the telescope, which has signboards explaining various aspects of its history and how it functions, and there are some hands-on activities.

One I found fun was the pair of whispering dishes – two hemispherical dishes facing each other, into which you can whisper your secret message and be heard perfectly well by the person standing in front of the other dish some 30 metres away. By focusing sound waves, the dishes help to demonstrate the principle behind the Lovell telescope, which works by focusing radio waves from space. The signboard in the photo above explains it much better than I can and you can see the two dishes in the photo below.

The Lovell is not the only telescope on site – there are three other smaller telescopes at the observatory (though these are not accessible to the visiting public), and the whole place is the base for MERLIN, the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network, an array of radio telescopes located throughout Britain

Some major discoveries have been made and important research work done at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, and, if one day humankind does finally discover whether or not there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, this could well be the place where that discovery is made. So, is there anybody out there?