01 December 2013

Jodrell Dreams

I didn't know much about Manchester before I moved here. I had heard it was grim. I had seen and fallen in love with the first 2 series of Shameless. Anne-Marie Duff and James McEvoy were a heads-on-right, circumstances-entirely-wrong couple I admired. I wished I had the resourcefulness of Debbie (pronounced Debb-ay).

I had seen 24 Hour Party People quite some time ago- and I'm not entirely sure I even realised it was about Manchester. I had read The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Again - had you asked me where, exactly, Engels was on about, I probably would have said, "England."

And then there were, of course, all the clues in everyday life that should have alerted me to Manchester as a unique place with a unique story in history. Clue 1: Bedding linen is called 'Manchester' in Australia. Clue 2: That Gandhi himself called for Indian independence from 'Manchester,' that cotton cloth spun and woven in England.

It seems, in fact, I did know a few things about Manchester before I moved here - or at least, I should have known that I knew these things.

But I stand by my first statement. I didn't know much.

Because what would have had me truly ants-in-my-pants jumping-bean excited about coming to Manchester - what I cannot believe I didn't know about this place before I moved here - is the science.

I've written about it before on this blog. John Dalton, the man who realised the world is made of atoms, realised it here. Dalton's very eyeballs are kept at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, under lock and key, in a secret location only 4 people at a time even know (or so I was told when I volunteered there). Alan Turing, the man who invented the freaking computer, invented it here. James Prescott Joule, that gentlemanly combination of physicist and beer-maker, who laid the groundwork for the law of conservation of energy, was born in Salford and died in Sale, both in Manchester's easy reach. Joule was president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1860 - and the group is still active today!

The scientific history of Manchester went along with it being an industrial powerhouse - the industry needed to constantly update itself, and it needed the engineering knowledge that the sciences brought.

Back in 1939, the University of Manchester's Botany Department bought three fields about 25 miles south of Manchester (out in Cheshire). Over the decades, the University bought more bits of land around those first three fields. The area was called Jodrell Bank. And in 1945, with equipment left over from WWII (such as gun laying radar), Bernard Lovell, an astrophysicist, began using Jodrell Bank to investigate cosmic rays. He would have done his investigations from Manchester proper, had it not been for interference from the Oxford Road trams - which were DESTROYED to make way for buses and cars and more road.

Today, Jodrell Bank's telescopes investigate radio waves from the planets and stars. In 1947, it had the largest radio telescope in the world, and in 1957, the Lovell Telescope was completed. At the time, it was the largest steerable dish in the world. Even now, it is the third largest. 

And more than that - Jodrell Bank is cool. Not just science-nerd cool. Lately, Jodrell Bank has redefined itself as a part-time summery outdoor music venue. A city known for its music and for its science - it's fitting to link the two up. The Flaming Lips played there, in what was an apparently amazing show in 2012, I think. This year, back in January, I bought tickets for a Sigur Rós show at Jodrell Bank. I'm not a particularly big Sigur Rós fan... I've heard their music, I have a CD or two... but mostly, I went to see the telescope.
Back in January, I thought I would be leaving Manchester at the end of 2013. I thought I might never get to see the telescope that still makes Manchester part of the world's space exploration community. 

Of course, by the time the show came around, at the end of August, I was well into wedding-planning! It was a gorgeous evening out at Jodrell Bank - an end-of-summer chill, only a little drizzle. 

Before the band came out, Dr Tim O'Brien gave short talk on the history of the Lovell Telescope - and the science that it's currently doing. A live Skype link-up with astrophysicists in South Africa about the Square Kilometer Array - Manchester is the HQ of the project! 

Then, Dr Tim asked the control room to please turn the telescope around, to face the audience. 

And Sigur Rós came out, with a beautiful screen of ethereal lights behind them. They are an Icelandic band, and they don't sing in English - so their music takes on an ethereal atmosphere. 

And then they started really using the telescope as part of the show. The nice thing about going to a gig where you're not a huge fan is that you never really worry that you're going to miss your favourite song. At some point, I wandered away from my friends, toward the back of the green, to see more of the telescope. I'm glad I did.

Back in the front with my mates, they had projected an image of the moon onto the face of the dish, so it looked like the moon was enormous and just behind the stage. 

And then they pulled out all the stops. With lasers.

When the show was over, we walked, as one huge crowd, back toward the parking lot. I took one last look; the telescope had already turned it back on us...
Back in January, I decided to see Sigur Rós, because I might never have the chance to see the Lovell telescope again. Late November this year, I got the official documentation: I can see all the Jodrell Bank shows I want and/or can afford: my visa was approved! I can live in the UK until 2016! 
Roll on, summer 2014 - I can't wait to see what Jodrell Bank's line up is...

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