Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory

Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two alumni of Manchester who seem to be high-profile but are now sadly dead are Alan Turing and Bernard Lovell.  Turing. mathematical genius, code-breaker extraordinaire, is widely considered to be the father of computing science and artificial intelligence.  Designing the first model  stored-program computer,  he worked on the innovative Manchester Computers project which lead to the development of the first commercially available general purpose computer the Ferranti Mark One.   It is an incredible legacy as arguably computers have been the most significant technological advance in the modern age.   Bernard Lovell, sadly died a few weeks ago.  A visionary physicist – his top-secret work on magnetrons during the WW2 helped Allied bombers spot submarine periscopes and Hitler blamed a major naval setback on his inventions.  During this work he spotted other strange stuff – emitting radio frequency waves – cosmic rays perhaps? so after the War he set up the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope in Cheshire to find out. The worlds biggest steerable radio telescope, its spiralling costs and need for electromagnetic silence (thus blocking local development) led it to be called ‘Lovell’s folly’ – and he was staring bankruptcy and public hostility in the face. Until the space race started and the launch of the Russian Sputnik sattelites. When it became obvious that the only place in the world that could track them was Jodrell Bank – overnight he became a hero again!

Importantly for our work in the Chaplaincy is also his interest in questions of science and faith.  A committed Christian, and organist in his local parish church, St Peter’s, Swettenham, for 40 years, with the big questions he believed cosmology must give way to metaphysics.  This is important for me as we are developing a Faith and Science group here in Manchester.  It is striking how many of the students who come into the chaplaincy are scientists.  Talking to them it is clear that they find it increasingly difficult to talk about their faith openly with scientific colleagues, or in a science lab. We would like to counteract that by developing a thriving Faith and Science community here – with a specialist library, lectures.  It may be that we will have an annual lecture named after Bernard Lovell.  It is a shame that due to the aggressive and intolerant atheism of people like Dawkins, the wise, gentler voices such as Lovell’s seem to be drowned out.  The Lovell Telescope will now be the nerve centre of what will be the world’s biggest telescope, the multinational Square Kilometre Array. But until his recent death Bernard Lovell remained modest about the limits of its discoveries. In his 90s he said he had never in his life been “faced with so many unanswered questions as now”.  And in his final Reith lecture he sketched out wise and telling parameters for faith and science when he said:

I am no more surprised or distressed at the limitation of science when faced with this great problem of creation than I am at the limitation of the spectroscope in describing the radiance of a sunset or at the theory of counterpoint in describing the beauty of a fugue.