When They Come to Model Heaven: Big Science and the Monumental in Post-War Britain

Article excerpt


First light

In spring 2006, the BBC launched a competition to identify 'Britain's greatest unsung landmark'. There were few conditions. It simply had to be somewhere usually passed over in lists of the great and the grand. The winner was the observatory at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, the centre for radio astronomy run by the University of Manchester.

The result caused little surprise; the observatory is held in great affection by many. But the award did raise questions. What was the basis for this regard? How had a 250 foot (76m) wide radio telescope become so prominent in the public imagination? This paper offers some tentative answers to these questions. As such, it adds to a growing body of literature on those archaeologies of the contemporary past (Buchli & Lucas 2001) that deal directly with supermodernity (Gonzalez-Ruiba1 2008), with the Cold War (Schofield & Cocroft 2007) and the cultural landscape of space itself (Gorman 2005; Darrin & O'Leary 2009; Sturdevant & Orndorff 2009). It uses a brief biography of the monument to trace the roots of that regard to the value attached to science and astronomy in the immediate post-war period in Britain. It argues that developments at the site, even changes in the architecture of its most iconic element, were driven by a tangle of contingencies.

The observatory was established in the summer of 1945, when Bernard Lovell arrived at the University of Manchester botanical station with a trailer or two of army surplus radar gear. His purpose was to escape the background noise of modernity, the electrical interference that made radio astronomy all but impossible in the city, and to pursue his interest in cosmic rays. The story of those small beginnings is a story that has been told many times and in many ways: as a chapter in the history of astronomy, as a celebration of engineering achievement, as a political thriller, even as autobiography (Lovell 1952, 1962, 1968, 1987). That is as it should be, for the place is a monument by any other name. And it is one of the qualities of monuments that whatever dominant interests they serve there are always other readings and alternative relations.


Jodrell Bank is a work in progress. Not yet 'heritage', all tidy stability and brown signs, scientific research continues amid the scattered remnants of earlier work (Figure 1). The place has a stratigraphy of sorts, the shifting attentions of astronomers mapped upon the ground in abandoned architectures, stacked panels and cables long since loosed from their moorings. All who work here arrive with an abstract history of scientific achievement, of insights gained from five or more decades of listening. A history learnt in the lab, in lectures and in journals. What they learn after arrival is the biography of the place. Stories of borrowed huts and foundations laid by hand, of stranded lorries and Cold War conspiracies, of dishes tipping and turning in the wind (Figure 2). To work here is to learn these stories by heart.

Old kit matters in this. The location of most buildings places them within the overall history of the site, which has spread to the north and west over time. The Park Royal building takes its name from the lorry used to carry the earliest mobile radar array. Everyone on site knows the story. Stranded in deep mud, the lorry and its associated cables became rooted to the spot, effectively determining the location of later telescopes and, in turn, the more permanent structures with which they became associated. Across the almost regimental green, the Old Moon Hut was associated with lunar research while Old Radiant saw use during early work on meteors, the name referring to the point in the sky from which meteors appear to originate during a shower. Both buildings have fallen out of active research, but remain common points of reference for those being shown around, the walk and the encounter forming part of a technology of memory. …