Astronomy & Cosmology

Lovell, Alfred Charles Bernard, Sir. | Archive of correspondence with astronomer Arthur Beer

  • An interesting archive of unpublished correspondence between leading radio astronomer Alfred Lovell (1913-2012) and astronomer and science populariser Arthur Beer.

    Beer (1900-1980) was born in Richenberg, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), and educated in Austria and Germany. He worked as an astronomer at Breslau University, where he studied binary stars, and at the German Maritime Observatory. He also wrote newspaper columns and was responsible for developing one of the first scientific radio programmes, Aus Natur und Technik. Beer escaped from Germany in 1934, assisted by Einstein, who wrote him a public letter of recommendation, and spent the rest of his life in the UK. He worked at the Cambridge Solar Physics Observatory and at the Kew Observatory, and became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Beer’s most significant contribution to science was as the founding editor of Vistas in Astronomy, a “voluminous and thorough survey of present-day astronomy” in two volumes, conceived as a Festschrift celebrating the 70th birthday of astrophysicist Frederick J. M. Stratton, under whom he had served in Cambridge. The resulting volumes were so impressive that it was continued first as an annual book and then a quarterly journal.

    Beer’s correspondent, the astronomer Alfred Lovell, became interested in radar astronomy while working on British military radar projects during the Second World War and seeing unexplained atmospheric phenomena on radar displays. After the war he set up the first radio telescopes at the University of Manchester, establishing his base at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. His first major success was in using decommissioned military equipment to determine that the radar echoes he’d seen during the war were caused by meteors. In 1950 he convinced the university to fund a large, custom-designed radar telescope, the Mark I, which was finished just in time to track Sputnik and its launch rocket in 1957. “The technical achievement was acclaimed as a national triumph with defence significance–the rocket was essentially an intercontinental ballistic missile, and no other radar system in the world could detect it. The telescope became a national icon, as well as an emblem of the University of Manchester” (ODNB). He continued his work with telescopes Mark 2 and 3, making observations of a variety of astronomical events and bodies, including US and Soviet lunar probes, and later served as a government administrator for large telescope projects. His work was recognised with the award of the royal medal of the Royal Society in 1960, a knighted the following year, and the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1981.

    This file contains correspondence between Beer and Lovell from the initial conception of the Vistas project in early 1952 through the final stages of printing in December, 1954. Lovell opens with a formal request for papers on February 27th, 1952, and Lovell responds on March 7th, “Thank you for your letter... conveying the invitation to contribute to Professor Stratton’s commemoration volume. I shall be very glad to help with this. It is rather difficult to make suggestions about the nature of the contribution until I know what other radio astronomers might be contributing. For example, the nature of any contributions from the Radio School in Cambridge would obviously influence my own contribution great deal. My provisional answer is, therefore, that I will write about radio astronomy, the exact aspect depending upon what other contributions in this field you are expecting to get. Perhaps you will let me know about this in due course.”

    On Mach 5th Beer writes that, “The arrangement of the book has made very good progress in the meantime, and you will be pleased to hear that all essential fields appear to be covered by their leading experts. The main sections will be: - Astronomical Vistas, Dynamical Astronomy... Each section has a number of contributors fro various countries; our latest acquisition was the director of the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories... At present the negotiations with publishers are my main preoccupation. For this purpose I am now preparing a provisional list of contributors and suggested titles... Apart from yourself I have only approached two others from your field, namely Ratcliffe and Ryle... Ryle wanted to communicate with you directly as to the question of how to share the radio-astronomical heavens. If you would care to state which part you would like to take over, I shall be delighted to make the necessary arrangements.” Later, in November, he writes to say that he can include a second article by Lovell and wonders if this might also include a drawing or plan of the proposed Mark I telescope. On December 5th Lovell responds, “Thank you for your letter of November 29th, which we discussed when I met you on Wednesday. Subsequently I was able to talk to Ryle and the position now seems quite clear. I shall do my best to let you have two articles from Jodrell Bank - one on Meteors and the other on Pencil Beam Techniques in radio Astronomy, including the new Radio Telescope.”

    Additional correspondence follows, primarily related to the forwarding of the articles and illustrations, proofing, and progress with the publishers, with one notable letter from Lovell reading, “I must say that the method used by Pergamon press is excessively irritating and I have never in the whole of my experience had to waste so much time owing to the fact that the proofs and the diagrams have come in bits and pieces over periods of many months. You must be having an awful job on this!”

    The two pieces submitted by Lovell were “Large Radio Telescopes and Their Use in Radio Astronomy” (co-authord by R. Hanbury Brown) and “Radio Echo Studies of Meteors” (with J. G. Davies). Of the 16 typed letters signed by Lovell, one has had the signature clipped out to be reproduced in Vistas, and also included in the file is a short autograph note from Lovell’s collaborator R. Hanbury Brown providing a signature as well. There is also a further typed note by Lovell indicating that he wants to approach Lovell for a piece on tracking Sputnik, presumably for a later issue of Vistas, but there is no related correspondence.

  • ...during the production of Vistas in Astronomy. Manchester, 1952-1956.

    Including 16 typed letters signed (one with the signature clipped out for reproduction in Vistas in Astronomy) and 1 autograph letter signed by Lovell, together with yellow carbons of Beer’s typed letters, bound together with green string with metal caps in Beer’s tan folder with the name Lovell in ink on the cover. Rust stains to the top three documents and the lower document from the metal caps on the binding string, not affecting the Lovell letters. Occasional mild creasing, otherwise the contents fresh and in excellent condition.