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Planet Pavilion ©Jodrell Bank

Science, Heritage & Culture: Jodrell Bank, Cheshire

For as long as I can remember, Jodrell Bank played a large part in my life. It was where my parents would take my brother and I at the weekend, where we went on school trips, and, in the past decade, proved to be a great place to simply go and think. There is something awe-inspiring about such an enormous telescope situated in the middle of the Cheshire countryside, something that puts life on our planet back into perspective. There really is much more out there.

The world famous Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, part of the University of Manchester, has been a much-loved visitor attraction for many years, as well as an internationally significant space research centre.

Jodrell Bank ( named after a geographic feature) is the UK’s 32nd World Heritage Site. The first scientific experiment at Jodrell Bank took place in 1945 – which makes it rather young for a heritage site. But for a cutting-edge, scientific, radio telescope complex it is rather old! The World Heritage Site inscription acknowledges Jodrell Bank’s tremendous scientific endeavours and its role in achieving a transformational understanding of the Universe.

Dr Brian Cox Stargazing Live
Dr Brian Cox Stargazing Live

To those growing up in the 1959’s and 1960’s, the huge dish was a known television feature so we probably knew more about it than the younger generation of today. In fact, you might just surprise yourself and realise that you have actually seen Jodrell Bank before: think back to when Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain transported galaxies into our living rooms and hosted three days of stargazing live from Jodrell Bank. It was also referenced on Dr Who and many other science fiction programmes and along with its instigator (Sir Bernard Lovell), it became a household name.

In 2011, I was lucky enough to be invited to the press launch, before the newly renovated site was open to the public – The tour started in “The Planet Pavilion” and the idea behind it, Dr Teresa Anderson (the Centre’s Director) explained, is that “our view out into space begins from this planet”. The aim of the centre is to “inspire young scientists and connect them to cutting-edge research as it happens”.

The stylish glass-walled café offers more than just spectacular views of the iconic Lovell telescope: it is run by the award winning Chef Peter Booth from “The Modern Caterer”. It is worth noting that the Café is situated in the “free” area of the visitors centre, so even if you do not intend to visit the museum, it is a great place to take a break!

Planet Pavilion ©Jodrell Bank
Planet Pavilion ©Jodrell Bank

All the architecture is focussed upon the Lovell telescope. Even the walls in the entrance hall are decorated with designs based on photos of people’s desks, people’s workstations – it is really easy to feel part of the science! The new visitors centre lifts the emphasis from heritage to the work in science which is conducted on the premises.

From the entrance hall, the visitors are directed through a tunnel, with optic fibre “stars” hanging from the ceiling: As you walk through the tunnel, you hear sounds from space – pulsars turned into thudding sounds – some originating from Jodrell bank, others courtesy of NASA.

Through the tunnel, the visitor steps into the exhibition room, which is decorated in pink/purple wall paper (Not just ANY pink/Purple wallpaper – this is a print of real signals which have come back from the Planck Space Mission! Give it another couple of years, and this might be available in B&Q….).

A representation of the sun with the months of the year around it and associated constellations that the sun moves through at different times of the year decks the ceiling (Not to be confused with astrological signs – there are 13 – it is astronomy rather than astrology!).

An Orrery (a mechanical model illustrating the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the solar system as they orbit the sun) is in the centre of the room.

We then left the “Planet Pavilion” and made our way across the grounds to “The Space Pavilion”, to take a closer look at the science that Jodrell Bank does and the big questions that people ask when they come here. (One of the regular events at Jodrell Bank is “Ask an expert” – visitors can come and ask a Jodrell Bank Expert all those burning questions about stars, planets or the telescope that have been keeping them up at night.) This is where the exhibition about the science of Jodrell Bank – and the interactive fun – begins….

The room is filled of interactive “fun” ways to learn about the Lovell Telescope, the work conducted at Jodrell Bank, and of course “hands on” exhibits, to delight kids and grown-ups alike. Dr Tim O’Brien, Reader in Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, said: ‘This is a great day for Jodrell Bank. The new Centre showcases the live science that happens here with new exhibitions focused on some of the big questions we’re trying to answer about the Universe.’

In space… there is a lot of noise. The signals picked up by the telescope can be changed into “sounds”, which the visitors can listen to on headphones, and even print off the “signals” to take home with them!

Short films of the Jodrell Bank Scientists talking about their jobs can be used using an interactive screen, which allows you to ask questions, e.g. Dr Tim O’Brian –Which observatories have you visited? Do you have a favourite star? Why are exploding stars so interesting?

An infrared camera is placed so that you can find out how “cool” you REALLY are, and by using a number of hand-held masks, visitors can experiment and discover that there are things that you can and can’t see through. Entertaining things can be done with infrared (warning ladies, it picks up on your bra!).

By ducking under a large cone, you can hear the sound of the big bang, and experience the sound of the first million years of the universe compressed into 10 seconds or so. Inside the cone, there’s information about the history of the universe.

There is a film pod with a looping sequence of movies about Jodrell Bank showing a range of films looking back historically, (newsreels), at modern science and also an animation that was produced especially for Jodrell Bank by Cosgrove Hall (Cosgrove Hall is a famous Manchester animation company: you might be familiar with “Fifi and the Flower Tots” or “Dangermouse” depending on how old you are or even “Chorlton and the Wheelies” ….) Other exhibits cover, black holes, the life of stars, the search for aliens and a “touching allowed” meteorite!

There is a wall covering international astronomy because astronomers here at Jodrell Bank work with telescopes all around the world and in space, and conversely people all around the world use this telescope here at Jodrell Bank (to date, no contact has been made with the telescope from life on other planets, but I guess this is something to look forward to, and I am sure they would use the telescope if they realised how great it was!). Jodrell Bank Observatory operates the Lovell Telescope, the e-MERLIN network of radio telescopes and takes part in the European VLBI Network. Radio waves can penetrate cloudy skies and so world-class research can be carried out from within the UK. This area of international astronomy will be extended, as the SKA work continues.

Other activities on the site include:

  • Wildlife and Natural Areas: With over 35 acres of gardens and arboretum at Jodrell Bank, there’s plenty to explore!
  • Space Playground: Head out into the gardens and find the Space Playground (4 years onwards)
  • Outdoor Exhibits: Make a spinning Jupiter and experiment with gravity using our large outdoor exhibits!
  • Alien Hunt: Aliens have landed at Jodrell Bank and we need your help to track them down!
  • Family Mission Log Books
Bluedot Festival 2017 ©Jodrell Bank
Bluedot Festival 2017 ©Jodrell Bank

Through their activity programme Jodrell Bank endeavours to enrich the stories that they tell, reflecting their values of integrity and inclusivity whilst retaining their famous sense of fun and friendliness to invoke curiosity, and to empower.

As such, Jodrell Bank host events where both Science and Culture interact, e.g. their Bluedot festivals, which have boasted the likes of Kraftwerk, New Order, The Chemical Brothers, The Flaming Lips, and Jean-Michel Jarre, alongside high-profile talks from some of the UK’s leading scientists and thinkers such as Helen Sharman, James Burke, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili and Liz Bonnin.

Jodrell Bank is underpinned by a story of great scientific achievement and discovery, intertwined with world events. Astronomy, has been a key part of the human experience for millennia, stretching back to Neolithic sites such as Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England; Chankillo in Peru and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is a key part of the wider Jodrell Bank site, home to the world-leading Jodrell Bank Observatory and the headquarters for the Square Kilometre Array. For scientists, the telescope furthers research in astrophysics: The Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics carries out a wide range of modern astrophysics research. The Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics has particular expertise in radio-mm observational astronomy but also makes observations at a wide range of other wavelengths and combines these with theory and modelling.

Jodrell Bank won the international bid to host the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a £1.3bn project – “the next big thing” in radio astronomy. Both South Africa’s Karoo region and Western Australia’s Murchison Shire were chosen as co-hosting locations for many scientific and technical reasons, from the atmospherics above the sites, through to the radio quietness, which comes from being some of the most remote locations on Earth – far away from mobile phones and microwave ovens and things that cause interference when you’re trying to pick up very faint signals from space. The international design and planning takes place at Jodrell Bank, which is a reflection of Jodrell Bank’s status in the science world.