Radio Drop Out

Nothing like a bracing spring morning watching the sunrise over the beach. It was far too early for most of the Porthcawl University of the Third Age, but we clambered aboard the bus and set off for the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank nevertheless.

Unlike the Greenwich observatory trip earlier in the year, this was not to be a debacle. Arriving in warm spring sunshine dead on time, we enjoyed looking around the awe inspiring telescope, wondering what object it was pointing at until we realized it was closed for essential maintenance after one of its wheels fell off. How the mighty are fallen.

Undeterred, we had a superb lunch at the visitor centre and were conducted on a tour by Ian Morrison, director of the facility. He explained the pre-eminence of Jodrell Bank and its current research on the remnants of supernovae – particularly those spinning husks named Pulsars. The highlight of the tour was listening in to recordings of various pulsars from clicking elders to humming juniors, all played together in a crescendo that really was the music of the spheres.

Another salient point was a small brass box fixed to the wall of the entrance to the control room. This box held a piece (we didn’t enquire which) of the pioneering radio astronomer Grote Reber who was inspired to build the world’s first radio telescope in the back garden of his mother’s house in Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. Despite investigation by the FBI (his neighbours thought his invention was a "death ray" to shoot down aircraft) he persevered and discovered many interesting objects, some of which are now being studied by astronomers at Jodrell Bank.

Returning to the sunshine we reflected on the past glories of this behemoth and pondered its future. We thought we had problems with pollution as astronomers but these seemed small in comparison in comparison to the radio astronomers as an inter-city train whizzed past just yards away from the 250 foot dish creating all kinds of bizarre readings.

An uninterrupted journey home had most falling asleep as the evening sunshine streamed through the windows. A better appreciation of "invisible" astronomy was afforded by the visit – now all I have to do is explain everything on next week’s visit to Porthcawl as Ian’s ppt refused to work. Not going to be an easy task……….

written by Martin Griffiths 

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