Radio Drop Outs!


Jodrell Bank, 24th May 2006. An anticipated trip taking 33 students to the famed centre of Radio Astronomy in the UK. OK, I know, I know, Cambridge may well feel that they have been going just as long and have compiled world famous catalogues of radio sources, but nothing can compare to the majesty, size and immediacy of the Mark I telescope, or the Lovell telescope as it is now known.

We were met at the visitor centre by Ian Morrison, who took us on a tour of the facilities and gave an excellent talk on the work of the observatory, its history and future. It was obvious we were in the presence of greatness, not just with the laboratory staff but dominating every corner, every room and the skyline of the science laboratories was the huge radio telescope which has been in continuous operation for almost 50 years.

The amount of science produced during these decades is staggering. The quasar 3C273 was tracked down here; its cosmological distance of 2.2 billion light years opened the way for our modern views on the universe; the Lovell telescope and its subsidiaries in the MERLIN network (Multi Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network) which has a greater spatial resolution than the Hubble Space telescope, have increased the number of known pulsars, (radiating neutron stars, the remnants of supernovae) in the Milky Way to almost 2000. The telescopes at Jodrell Bank have continuously monitored the Crab Nebula and its pulsar since its discovery, revealing much about the nature of pulsars. It has played a major role in revealing supermassive black holes at galaxy centres and has been involved in every major radio astronomy discovery from ionizing trails of meteors in 1948 to SETI and Cosmic Background Radiation anisotropy mapping of modern times, enabling astronomers to build complex models of galaxy formation after the Big Bang.

Jodrell Bank very responsive in terms of science communication too. Its visitor centre sees tens of thousands of people each year, including school groups; their experience is topped off with a 3-D show in the centre’s lecture theatre after wandering the sculpted grounds of the Arboretum, returning to stare at the leviathan dish dominating everything in the flat landscape of the Cheshire plain. Soon the centre will have a refurbished planetarium to add to its attractions. If you cannot travel to Manchester, Jodrell Bank offers mature students a distance learning course in radio astronomy, one of several outreach projects it runs.

The students were suitably impressed. One of the highlights of the day was listening to the musical cacophony of the pulsars of the globular cluster 47 Tucanae. If Kepler had dreamed of the "music of the spheres", this was it. The great orchestra of the sky tuning up with a multitude of tones, notes and pitches that produced unearthly, alien harmonies.

A great day at a fantastic British facility. If anyone thinks that UK science is falling behind the rest of the world, come to Jodrell Bank and see what is being achieved.

Written by Martin Griffiths

One comment

    Matt Goldman

    May 25, 2006

    Sounds like an awesome trip! It’s nice to see that Britain is keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of scientific discovery and acheivement, especially considering the contribution of British scientists in the past.

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