Doubt cast on Sir Bernard Lovell's 'brainwashing'

Feb 08, 2013
Doubt cast on Sir Bernard Lovell's 'brainwashing'

In this month's edition of Physics World, science writer Richard Corfield casts doubt on the alleged "brainwashing" of the late British astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War and explains how his trips beyond the Iron Curtain laid the foundations for the easing of geopolitical tensions between the UK and the USSR.

Speaking to Lovell's son Bryan, Corfield reveals a more mundane explanation for why Lovell, who founded the Jodrell Bank telescope in the UK, fell ill on his return from the USSR in 1963.

"For me the more likely explanation is that father was simply exhausted—and that gels with the account that he wrote in the contemporaneous diary of the 1963 trip, in which you will find nothing untoward, but plenty of fascinating science," reveals Bryan Lovell, who is the current president of the Geological Society of London.

The alleged brainwashing incident occurred during Lovell's visit to the USSR in 1963 when he was taken on an unexpected tour of the Soviets' new radio-telescope and space-tracking facility in the Crimea, which he was deeply impressed by. On his return to Moscow, Lovell was quizzed on his plans to build a larger telescope at Jodrell Bank, which at the time was the only telescope facility capable of tracking Soviet nuclear-tipped rockets. The Soviets made it clear that if Lovell remained in the USSR and built the facility there, they would give him the money.

Lovell declined the offer and returned to the UK, but immediately fell ill and found that his life had "suddenly turned to dust and ashes", as he wrote in a 2008 memorandum. In the months after his recovery, Lovell was told by the that the illness might have been caused by a Soviet attempt to remove his memory of the recruitment offer and what he had seen during his visit.

Despite the incident, Lovell was a fervent believer in the of science—a conviction that was confirmed in the diaries he wrote during the Cold War period, which were released by the University of Manchester after his death in August last year.

Indeed, the British scientific collaboration with the Soviet Union also extended to the field of fusion science, which in 1969 led to a group of leading researchers from the UK Atomic Energy Authority sharing their expertise in measuring plasma temperatures with a Soviet group working on the latest nuclear-fusion technologies.

The fusion collaboration forged in the 1960s ultimately paved the way to the creation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)—a practical attempt to prove that ideas from plasma physics can be translated into full-scale electricity-producing fusion power plants. The first plasma is expected to be produced by ITER in 2020, with the first real working fusion power plants coming—if all goes well—some 20-30 years after that.

"When—and if—that happens, historians will be able to trace that success back to those early collaborations between Britain and the Soviet Union, and, in part, to the legacy of Sir Bernard Lovell's radio telescope that was used as the earliest of early-warning systems," Corfield writes.

Explore further: New filter could advance terahertz data transmission

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

British astronomer Bernard Lovell dies at 98

Aug 07, 2012

(AP) — Pioneering British physicist and astronomer Bernard Lovell, who developed one of the world's largest radio telescopes exploring particles in the universe, has died. He was 98.

Apollo 13 checklist part of space artifacts auction

Nov 23, 2011

A notebook containing Apollo 13 commander James Lovell's handwritten calculations to guide the damaged spacecraft back to Earth is being auctioned along with other artifacts from the 1970 mission.

University helps map the universe

Sep 19, 2007

The University of Manchester is developing high-speed data crunching technology that will be crucial to the success of one of the greatest scientific projects of the 21st century.

Bill seeks to allow astronauts to keep space souvenirs

Mar 12, 2012

A dispute between NASA and former astronauts over ownership of space artifacts has led to a bill in Congress that would give the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts "full ownership rights" to items such as checklists and ...

New jet results tick all the boxes for ITER

Oct 08, 2012

Latest results from the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion device are giving researchers increasing confidence in prospects for the next-generation ITER project, the international experiment that is expected ...

Recommended for you

Breakthrough in OLED technology

5 hours ago

Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), which are made from carbon-containing materials, have the potential to revolutionize future display technologies, making low-power displays so thin they'll wrap or fold ...

Throwing light on a mysterious human 'superpower'

8 hours ago

Most people, at some point in their lives, have dreamt of being able to fly like Superman or develop superhuman strength like the Hulk. But very few know that we human beings have a "superpower" of our own, ...

New filter could advance terahertz data transmission

Feb 27, 2015

University of Utah engineers have discovered a new approach for designing filters capable of separating different frequencies in the terahertz spectrum, the next generation of communications bandwidth that ...

The super-resolution revolution

Feb 27, 2015

Cambridge scientists are part of a resolution revolution. Building powerful instruments that shatter the physical limits of optical microscopy, they are beginning to watch molecular processes as they happen, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.