Gazing at Infinity
It's funny some of the things we remember from when we were kids, the little things that probably mean nothing to anyone else, yet they mean the world to us.
For me, one of the most special things I remember growing up was the opportunity I got to spend time just outside on my own, where I could be alone and just let the old imagination wander.
Actually, I wasn't really alone, as I had two faithful friends there, always keen to get out and enjoy the scenery, though our motivations were somewhat different.
The two faithful friends were my two dogs, well we always talked about them as if they were my dogs, in reality, they were family animals. I won't call them pets as they were so much more than that, but they were always there, ready and eager for the walk, and man did we walk!
Saturday was the day for the big walks. During the week I'd get home from school, usually have to spend an hour or so helping Dad get ready for the next day, but by five in the evening that was all done, and time for the walk.
Saturday was different, I'd help Dad in the morning (Hey, he paid me for it, and I was the richest kid in town but never spent the money) but the afternoon was walk time, and man was it a big one.
You could see for miles
The edge of town
See I grew up on the edge of a pretty big town, at the time we always used to think that nothing really exciting ever really happened there, but we were so wrong.
Every Saturday I'd head out the door, take a right and walk about three hundred yards, take another right, climb the cobblestone street, walk through a narrow entry and up a steep path to a farmers field.
The field had a walking trek that started there, and after a while, I'd take the trek, but not before we'd taken ten or so minutes to get our breath back, but it wasn't the walk that took my breath away, it was the view, and what I saw in the view. Take a look at the top left of the picture above and see if you can work out what I'm talking about. (it's a man-made object twenty miles from where I was sitting and was enormous! but better yet, it fired the imagination like nothing else can!)
This will give a bit of a clue
Welcome to Jodrell Bank.
I used to sit there on that hill, to the North, on a clear day I could see Manchester. Looking Northwest, forty miles further on I could see Liverpool, but looking out west was a special sight.
Built in the 1940s was one of the most amazing sights for any kid, a huge Telescope, but not just any one, at the time it was the biggest Radio Telescope ever built, at a place called Jodrell Bank.
I used to sit there for hours. The huge dish seemingly pointing at nothing but air, but something inside me would ask one question, "What are they looking at?"
They weren't looking, they were LISTENING!
I never realised at the time, but Jodrell Bank was a very special type of telescope, it wasn't 'looking' at anything, but listening to everything!
Built in the late 1940s Jodrell Bank was using the latest tech to do what no one had even thought possible forty years before, it was listening to the universe, and what a racket the universe was making!
Not long after the invention of the radio by Marconi people began to notice there was interference, and not all the interference could be explained by man-made objects.
Started by a man with a vision
Until I started writing this hub I always thought that Jodrell Bank was some scheme dreamed up by the University of Manchester and built on a vast scale.
I never realised that it was just one man who wanted to study the heavens, he just wanted to 'do the science' and literally started the whole thing not with a huge grant, but a few bits of Army surplus and an empty field that belonged to the Botany Department!
Just one man with a vision started the whole show!
Yes, he'd been a vital part of Britain's and the Allies research establishment, he'd developed short wave radio techniques for detecting enemy submarines that had been vital for winning the war in the Atlantic, but apparently Bernard Lovell was a man who wanted to be remembered for the science he'd done, and not what his inventions had contributed to a war effort!
One documentary I watched said that he invented things and made them happen at a speed that would make Steve Jobs look like a slowcoach! Then again, that was in wartime.
Lovell wanted the same in peacetime, so he set about building his own telescope in a field with little more than a truckload of Army surplus radar equipment!
The full story of Bernard Lovell and Jodrell Bank
It was just before the outbreak of WW2 that an engineer with the Bell Telephone company in the USA had worked out that the interference they were getting wasn't all coming from the earth, but some of it was coming from a place in the constellation of Sagittarius, it was coming from the centre of our Galaxy!
After the war people like Sir Bernard Lovell and Fred Hoyle wanted to study the universe, but the problem with a normal telescope is you can only do that at night, and only if it's a clear night, but use Radio and you can study the universe whenever you want to, and it doesn't matter what the weather is doing. Radio goes right through it!
Cold War referee?
I love this idea.
We always heard this as kids, but the last few years I thought to take this with a 'pinch of salt' as it might just be the Brits 'bragging' at how good their tech was, but apparently, this is true.
Both the USA and Russia had Nuclear weapons, and both had missiles, but neither could track the 'other side' so both turned to the one place in the Western Hemisphere that could, the only radio tracking device that could handle the data required, they turned to that place not far from where I would be sitting a few years later watching the huge dish track whatever it was!
They listened in as Sputnik one raced across the sky (the Russians got bragging rights on that one, but only after Jodrell Bank told the West it was legit!)
They listened in as the first space probe sent to the moon impacted as planned (Russians again with Luna 2 in 1959). Once again the Americans wanted to know if it was 'for real'
They listened to Alan Shepard as he became the first American into space, passing the information (with the Americans consent) to the Russians.
When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth Jodrell Bank was listening in, letting the Russians know it was real, and they had a real race on their hands.
But they did much more than that.
Listen to what they found
They aren't just 'bright spinning lights' but these things are spinning so fast that they're literally throwing radiation out into space. They're so dense that one only ten miles across would have more mass than our sun at nearly 700,000 miles across.
Now imagine hearing the radio 'blip' from the radiation going across your telescope, and it's going so damn fast it sounds like morse code on steroids!
I can remember every so often as a kid hearing that scientists had heard a 'noise' from outer space that they were convinced was 'Alien'. but it wasn't, it had a much stranger origin, and Jodrell Bank was listening to it.
I don't know who told me, but I remember as a kid learning that Jodrell Bank could read signals from as far away as six hundred million light years away, at the time I was blown away, but probably had no real idea just how far that was, I still can't comprehend, but I might just try and show you just how far it really is.
See, our sun is about 93,000,000 miles away, it takes light about eight minutes to reach us from the surface of our sun. If we were to turn on a huge torch here on earth, then at the closest point to us, Mars would get that light about twelve minutes after we started shining it, Then Jupiter would get it about half an hour later, we've already travelled further than any man has ever gone and covered nearly a billion miles, but keep going.
Our torchlight would reach Pluto about four hours after we turned it on, but it wouldn't reach the nearest star for about four years (that's a long time to be shining a torch)
Keep going for another forty thousand years and the light would be reaching the nearest boundary of our Galaxy (we sit about a third of the way out, close to one of the spiral arms) but would take another seventy thousand years to reach the other side (Yep, it's that big, a hundred thousand light-years across, that's one hundred thousand times 4.88 trillion miles).
We haven't even reached a million light years yet, and Jodrell Bank was listening to stuff from way beyond that!
Imagine this, the radio waves we're sending out into the cosmos, won't reach these places for hundreds of millions of years
The heavens praise your wonders, LORD, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones.— Taken from the New International Version of the Bible (Psalm 89 verse 5)
First and Biggest
Jodrell Bank is now sixty years old and is still one of the most important Radio Telescopes working today.
It was built in 1957 long before computers and software were used to help design the machine, the whole thing was literally designed with a 'slide rule' and good old grey matter figuring things out, and the government didn't pay a penny for it!
When it was built it was a 'crazy idea' but proved itself in so many ways, first in being the only device that could actually track the early probes we the Human race sent into the Heavens.
It was also the first instrument to show us that Space is anything but quiet, you just have to listen in to the right frequency, and boy do they make a racket!
Got an old TV or radio? Turn it on and watch the static at the beginning, Jodrell Bank was the place that figured out that a small amount of that noise coming at you has been around for thirteen billion years, It's literally the noise created with the very explosion that is thought to be the Big Bang itself!
There are bigger Telescopes now, Jodrell Bank is now the fifth biggest, but two are so big they had to be built into craters, they are the ones in Chile and China and can only look at what's directly overhead.
There are two others bigger than Jodrell that are fully steerable, one in Virginia and one in Germany, but both were built in the seventies and in some ways, it was Jodrell Banks reputation that helped get them built.
What it showed us
Before they built the Telescope we only ever got pictures of the stars, we had no real idea what we were looking at, the stars looked bright, but we had no real idea what was really going on. Jodrell Bank changed all that.
We discovered that those bright stars actually emit Nuclear Radiation. Granted, the amount that reaches us is very weak, but it's there, and it began to tell us things about the universe we never really thought about before.
Some of these stars seemed to be emitting signals, and they seemed to be really strange, they were so regular that it was almost as if someone was trying to send us a signal. but then they started to appear in other parts of the Galaxy.
Pointing other Telescopes to the areas to see what the signals were revealed something really strange, stars so dim they could hardly be seen even with the best telescopes spinning at incredible speeds, and each time the light 'flashed' in the telescope coincided with the 'pulse' of the radio waves.
They were stars so dense they hardly emitted any light, and they were spinning so fast they literally 'threw out' a radio signal just like a Radar screen does, they were the Galaxy's 'lighthouses' but we know them as 'Pulsars'
THE CENTRE OF THE GALAXY
Looking through our conventional telescopes all we can see of the centre of our own Galaxy is a haze as the intensity of the light from the stars there blinds them from seeing anything. Jodrell Bank and her sisters the radio telescopes have no such problems, they see straight through into the centre, and what it picked up changed the way we understand things.
They picked up an area where no signals came out, an area where not even light can get out, we couldn't 'see it' but there was no doubt, Einstein was proved right, there was a Black Hole at the centre of our Galaxy!
One of these!
And back to the reminiscing
Every time I hear of discoveries like these I can't help thinking back to those days sat on the hillside, gazing out over the plains and seeing the Telescope, wondering what they were 'looking at' or rather 'listening to'
Jodrell Bank showed us things about the universe we could never have imagined, incredible beauty and organisation, and yet incredible danger as we peer into the Heavens.
It showed us that the universe is vast, so vast we haven't seen it's edges, and recently they dowed us that it's growing faster than we ever realised, yet it also showed is that in many ways, the one little planet, a seemingly insignificant piece of rock orbiting a seemingly insignificant ball of Nuclear Fusion might just be the most special place in the entire universe! It showed us that the Earth is special, just how special we might explore in a few more hubs.