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Page last updated at 09:52 GMT, Tuesday, 5 September 2006 10:52 UK

Aye to the telescope

Jodrell Bank Lovell telescope
Main dish: Jodrell Bank's Lovell telescope - our unsung landmark winner

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The Magazine's search for Britain's greatest unsung landmark is over. The thousands of votes have been counted and Jodrell Bank in Cheshire is the winner.

It is a slice of science fiction in a green and pleasant land.

Leaving sleepy Macclesfield and pottering down the winding country lanes of this affluent, footballer-sprinkled section of Cheshire, motorists suddenly catch a glimpse of something startling.

Through the gaps in the hedgerows, you can see a landmark in the scientific history of Britain, the country's largest radio telescope.

The final 8
29,093 votes were cast for the final 8 unsung landmarks
Jodrell Bank received 21.03% of votes cast
Second place went to Humber Bridge and third to the New Severn Bridge

It is an eye on far-away galaxies, 365 nights a year, rotating as it tracks faint radio signals from stars that imploded millennia ago.

Precisely 250ft across, Jodrell Bank's Lovell telescope weighs 3,200 tonnes and remains one of the most important in the world. About to celebrate its half-centenary, it is a monument to a more innocent age when faith in science and progress was perhaps more wholehearted than it is today.

The iconic status of the site has seeped into the world of fiction. In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Jodrell Bank fails to alert the population to the arrival of the Vogon fleet on a mission to demolish Earth.

"Miles above the surface of the planet the huge yellow somethings began to fan out. At Jodrell Bank, someone decided it was time for a nice relaxing cup of tea," Douglas Adams wrote.

In Dr Who, Tom Baker fell to his "death" from a walkway at the telescope. And in the 1953 novel the Quatermass Experiment, the central character is said to be named Bernard after the founder of Jodrell Bank, Sir Bernard Lovell.

Dr Who
Tom Baker's final stand as the Doctor was on the telescope

For a television interview on anything from comets to lost space missions, the Lovell telescope is a popular backdrop. It says science and it says space.

Megan Argo is one of the postgraduate students who mill around the site hoping to be behind the next big discovery. As a child in Macclesfield she watched the telescope with awe. Now, through it, she "watches galaxies crash into each other".

"As a scientific instrument it is a particularly photogenic one. When the light catches it at sunset it is fantastic. And it is Britain's contribution to the space race."

Sir Bernard brought his leg of the space race to leafy Cheshire after World War II. The physicist had worked on radar during the war and was fascinated by odd signals picked up by the equipment, which he believed might be echoes of cosmic rays.

Oven upset

He started work at the University of Manchester buildings in the centre of the city, but was obstructed by interference from passing electric trams. He needed to get into the countryside and took up residence at Jodrell Bank, where the university's botany department had a base.

Lovell telescope
One of the telescope towers is home to a pair of peregrine falcons
Telescope operates alone and also in tandem with sites across the country and globe
It's now being painted - three coats to the entire structure take 5,300 litres of paint

Interference remains an issue. Mobile phones must be switched off on site, and the microwave in the common room resides in a Faraday cage to stop radiation escaping. Staff tell an apocryphal-sounding anecdote from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, when a promising signal turned out be a technician warming his lunch at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. It is a warning to other telescopes.

Conceived in the 1940s, and co-designed by engineer Sir Charles Husband, the main telescope at Jodrell Bank was completed in 1957. It soon impressed the astronomy community when it was the only facility in the West able to track the rocket carrying the Russians' first satellite, the Sputnik, into space.

Perhaps its greatest moment came in 1979 when it was the first telescope to observe a gravitational lens, an effect where a "massive" object bends electromagnetic radiation such as light around it. This proved a key part of Einstein's theory of relativity for the first time.

Jodrell Bank, which remains part of Manchester University, spends much of its time looking for quasars and pulsars, large stars that have collapsed in on themselves and become hugely dense rotating neutron stars. Three years ago a team at Jodrell Bank found a double pulsar, a milestone in astronomy.

Jodrell Bank map
No longer just known to the North West?

The observatory has led the searches for lost probes, tracking the Mars Observer in 1993 and Beagle II 10 years later.

But much of the significance of the work Jodrell Bank has done would be lost on the day-trippers who stand underneath the dish gazing skywards.

"It is fantastic, very exciting, the very structure, the immense size of it," says Tom Mitchell, from Tideswell, Derbyshire.

The academics who run the site are equally enamoured of the Grade I-listed structure.

"It does have rather a unique sort of beauty. The bowl itself is such a simple and elegant shape," says Prof Andrew Lyne, director of the site.

And the telescope was one of the first scientific sites in the world to truly engage with the general public. It is currently waiting for funding so it can build a new multimillion pound visitors' centre.

Difficult questions

"The telescope became so famous that people just turned up to be close to it," says Dr Tim O'Brien, a senior lecturer in astrophysics.

Sir Bernard Lovell
I often meet elderly people long since retired, who tell me it was the sight of Jodrell as a young boy that inspired them to a scientific career
Sir Bernard Lovell

"The next generation of scientists and engineers need to be inspired . Somewhere between primary school age and 15 years old a lot of them lose their interest. It is an issue for the economic well-being of the country."

Prof Lyne adds: "We feel very strongly that we are supported by the general public. We are spending public money. We believe we have a duty to tell people what we are doing and give them something back."

In the shadow of the giant dish, children have been enjoying an "ask the astronomer" session. Most ask the easily answerable, but there is the odd googly thrown in like "why is Pluto not a planet?" and "is space curved?".

In the nearby village of Goostrey, Grahame Rothwell is walking his dog Bruce and admiring the dish from afar.

"Throughout the seasons it looks a different thing, and considering it is engineered it is quite easy on the eye. In a grey sky with a low sun it is really quite beautiful."

But back at Jodrell Bank, six-year-old Joe Nesbitt has perhaps the most pithy appreciation of the scientific landmark he surveys.

"I like space."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Why is the word massive in quotes? Massive means having mass. The quotes suggest the journalist is ignorant. Massive is rarely used in this, proper technical, sense: perhaps italics would be appropriate.
andy buckle, newcastle upon tyne

Having gone to boarding school in its shadow, it was and will always be a sign that there IS a world out there!!
DaveO, Cheshire

I used to work as part of a film crew and we visited Jodrell bank as part of a documentary we were making. We climbed up onto the dish and I can still remember the incredible feeling of standing im the centre with the sides of the telescope curving upwards around us.There was also the odd rusty section on some of the metal panels, which suprised me. We then hauled ourselves up a rope towards the edge and I gingerley peered over.I´ll never forget the view on a superb clear day and just how high the thing is off the ground.On the rare times I revisit friends in Manchester, I still look out for this superb piece of engineering & think "I´ve stood on that" !!
steve hunter, Malaga, Spain

Megan Argo! What a brilliant name for someone involved in space exploration.
peter collins, belfast

Not an unsung landmark I know, but the London Eye is truly fantastic, and looks so right in world-class capital like London.
Karl Chads, London, UK

I went to Jodrell Bank for my, ooh, 9th?, 10th? birthday party (over twenty years ago) though I haven't been able to go back since. Looking at the website it looks like it's still a great day out. What's more, look at the admission price! A world-class British contribution to history and science for under a tenner for a family of five.
Michael, UK

I live about 5 miles from Jodrell Bank and as I come off the motorway I can see it looming on the horizon. It's truely an amazing thing to see, especially driving down the local roads nearby as it suddenly reveals itself. A couple of years back they replaced all the panels on the dish and it was fascinating to see the dish go from a rusty orange streaked colour to a brilliant white dish.
Paul Benwell, Cheshire, UK

A deserved winner as I think I may have been the person to nominate it ?
Steve Jones, Poynton, Cheshire

As an East Yorkshire lass I had to voted for the Humber Bridge but I am fascinated to read about Jodrell Bank. Its structure and the history around it tell us a lot about the human psychy and our thirst to find out more about space and to look beyond our own planet. It also makes a change to see the little known but nevertheless fantastic structures have their moment in the sun. Why any of them have remained 'unsung' is a mystery to me!
Lauren, York

Cheshire is the centre of the universe. QED.
Lucy Jones, Manchester (but I live in Cheshire)

I am so glad that something like Jodrell Bank has won. There was every chance that some irritatingly twee, "nice" building could have won. But no, here is a scientific icon that has the power to inspire. Of course one has to mutter, low under your breath, that it's a bit expensive to keep and the money could be better spent elsewhere. But that's like scrapping a well loved car because it needs a bit of extra servicing each year....
Lewis Graham, Hitchin

I'd have voted for it myself if I'd known in time.
Terry Bernstein, London, UK

In the 1970s, when I was a boy, people used to say 'Jodrell Bank' with respect. We respected science then. The 1970s was the last decade in which science was going to make everything okay, and Jodrell Bank was one of the most high-profile examples of that.
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

A thoroughly deserved award for a defining landmark on the Cheshire skyline. Commuting to Stockport via Poynton a couple of years back allowed me to see the telescope standing proud on the plain every morning at sunrise. Bliss.
Rachael Ward, Oxford, formerly of Macclesfield, UK

Jodrell Bank is indeed an impressive landmark. As a local resident passing by I have been mystified for years as to its purpose. What gets me is that visitors can drive right up to the dish and potentially ruin the ongoing research by not turning their mobiles off!
Jon Dawson, Manchester


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