Email this review


In a thoughtful and perceptive memoir, the builder of the first great radio-telescope offers an enlightening discussion of big science, politics, and money. Fascinated from early on with the phenomenon of radio waves, Lovell (In the Center of Immensities, 1978) left his steadfastly religious, rural hometown in England to work with cloud chambers at the Univ. of Manchester, design radar systems during WW II, and, back in Manchester, establish a radar system for tracking cosmic rays in a muddy field called Jodrell Bank. Backed initially by the university, Lovell had only a few trailers and some surplus army radar equipment to work with as he began studying mysterious traces on the radar screens that originated in the depths of space. In August 1946, when he was able to link a large number of echoes on the screen with the visible Perseid meteors, the importance of his research was established. Still, large radio telescopes cost money, and, as Lovell learned, obtaining that money involved lengthy dealings with bureaucracies, reporters, and political and military representatives. Initially lacking the political and fund-raising savvy that later scientists would be forced to acquire, Lovell depended on luck and tenacity to ensure the growth of the Jodrell Bank system. Fortunately, luck was with him. Despite a disastrously overextended budget, widespread protests, and a near lawsuit, the Jodrell Bank telescopes survived to participate in the Soviet and American space programs, the discoveries of quasars and the halt in high-altitude nuclear weapons testing As is often the case in big science, Lovell emphasizes, the high-profile projects helped most in paying for the equipment. In part due to his gradual understanding of this fact of life, the radio telescope still stands, visible from his country home, as a personal symbol of his own life of constant discovery. A scientific success story, well told.

Pub Date: May 30th, 1990
Publisher: Basic Books