In 1928, as a schoolboy of 15, I had no academic ambitions and was regularly in the bottom half of the school examinations lists. One autumn evening that year, a dramatic and unforgettable event changed my life. The senior physics master arranged to take a party of boys to a series of evening lectures on the electric spark, given by AM Tyndall at the University of Bristol.
I was born and brought up in a country village, had rarely been to a large city, and had never been to a university. That evening, I was overwhelmed by the magnificence of the lecture room in which Tyndall produced electric arcs that ripped across the room, discharges in glass vessels that changed colour as the vessels were evacuated, and demonstrations of the properties of infrared and ultraviolet light that I was never to forget.
That lecture room held all the devices and gadgets that represented my idea of paradise. Suddenly, I wanted desperately to become a student in Tyndall’s laboratory. Three years and two examinations later, I was there.
More sinister circumstances channel my own career from physics to astronomy. In September 1939, as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain announced that we were at war with Germany, I was in the operation room of one of the coastal defence radar stations. But the mass of echoes on the cathode ray tube were not from approaching enemy bombers. Six years later, released from the war and in the belief that those echoes might be from the ionisation of large cosmic ray showers, I borrowed ex-army radar equipment and installed it at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire to investigate these phenomena.
As we built larger and larger aerial systems, and eventually the 250ft radiotelescope, Jodrell Bank became a prominent feature of the Cheshire landscape. Now, in my ninety-third year, I often meet elderly people long since retired, who tell me that it was the sight of Jodrell as a young boy that inspired them to a scientific career. As the electric arcs produced by Tyndall in 1928 changed my life, so the huge structures of radio astronomy and the investigation of the mysteries of the universe have changed the lives of many people today.
Bernard Lovell is author of books including Astronomer by Chance (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and Voice of the Universe: Building the Jodrell Bank Telescope (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).