back to article The field at the centre of the universe: Cambridge's outdoor pulsar pusher

A field full of bits of old wire and an abandoned garden shed: it doesn't look like the place where Nobel prize-wining research was conducted, pushing the frontier of radio astronomy. But it was. This is the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, at Lords Bridge – site of a disused railway station just outside Cambridge – which …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've driven past this a bunch of times on my way to our labs in Cambridge (and ate at the three horseshoes) and always wondered what it was, the only thing I could glean from the main road was that the site was big.

    Thank you!

  2. muddysteve

    Did Bell have a first name?

    The article states that Hewish's first name was Antony, but Ms Bell is just Bell. Bit disrespectful?

    1. Groaning Ninny

      Re: Did Bell have a first name?

      Jocelyn. Quite a dame. Sorry, a Dame.

    2. LDS Silver badge

      Re: Did Bell have a first name?

      No, it's just mean Bell is much more famous now than Hewish. After all if you say Einstein you don't need to state it was Albert...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Did Bell have a first name?

      The article states that Hewish's first name was Antony, but Ms Bell is just Bell. Bit disrespectful?

      At the time Mr. Burnell wasn't around.

      Perhaps oddly, Hewish has argued that science and religion are complementary whereas Jocelyn Bell-Burnell is a Quaker (and their views tend to be very similar, as with Eddington). Pascal said "Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m'effraie", but real astrophysicists seem to have a much more positive attitude to the universe.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

        Re: Did Bell have a first name?

        She was even on Stargazing Live on BBC2 a few months ago (at least some of the bits that weren't devoted to Tim Peake and the ISS). A very engaging and eloquent lady, came across very well.

        I seem to recall they were talking her up as being Nobel Prize Winning too. Maybe factually incorrect, but as others have noted it's an injustice.

  3. 2460 Something

    Very nice write-up. It is indeed a shame that sites like this are not preserved. Two of my kids had the opportunity to visit an observatory recently. Since they have been very excited about astronomy and the names of the constellations. Especially the formations they got to look at (Orion's Nebula and Betelgeuse) through the massive telescope. Up and down the country we have all this wonderful history of technological innovation and scientific achievement. Maybe if they were used as part of education we could inspire the next generation of scientific explorers! Open it up to tourism and inspire the older ones as well (quick sweep for bombs at that site first though :P)

    Anyway, I'm off looking for a decent telescope....

  4. Simon Rockman

    open it up to the public?

    For schoolkids?

    Which part of "former chemical weapons dump" did you not follow?

    1. Swarthy

      Re: open it up to the public?

      So there will be plenty of mustard for the lunch sandwiches. Sounds like a win to me!

      Hmmm.. Joke Alert, or The Child Catcher.... Decisions.

    2. 2460 Something

      Re: open it up to the public?

      It's been operating safely since the 1957. Most of the munitions (and one would assume mustard gas) were disposed of at sea.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: open it up to the public?

        I always wondered why the fish that I ate as a trawlerman tasted 'mustardy',I thought that it was 'North Sea Sauce'.

        Seriously, it is wrong that Jocelyn BELL was not accorded equal recognition for the discovery.

        However, as she would probably acknowledge,even though I suspect that it affected her emotionally,the 'reward' is in the discovery itself.

        Likewise the recent gravitational wave discovery involving two black holes,it's the 'discovery' not the 'reward's' that really matter.

        The Nobel Peace prize system has been corrupted by politicians of late & has become tainted.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Re: open it up to the public?

          The Nobel Peace prize system has been corrupted by politicians of late & has become tainted.

          Not really.

          The one which is very laden is the Nobel Peace Prize (mainly due to bad decisions by the commitee) and possibly the Nobel-Inspired Prize in Economics (trick cyclists prize, more like)

          For the Nobel prizes in science, it's still rather clean, though of course given that same egos of scientists reach several solar masses, politicking, grassrooting, smear campaigns, camping in front of the lobby and "it can be only me" cargo-cult creations can all be found. It's the way of humanity...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: S R "Which part of "former chemical weapons dump" did you not follow?"

      Check out the story and wiki article on "former chemical weapons dump" come school. The question above sadly is not one many seem to understand.


      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: S R "Which part of "former chemical weapons dump" did you not follow?"

        Get of of here Stalker!

  5. AdamT

    Used to be my "local" interferometery array

    ... as I lived in one of the nearby villages so would drive past these chaps most days:

    Occasionally at night you'd hear the groaning/scraping sounds as they dragged themselves up and down the old rail lines adjusting themselves.

    Seems like they've now been co-opted into a more stationary configuration these days:

  6. BoldMan

    I remember visiting this place as part of my Astrophysics degree course from Queen Mary College back in the early 80s. We met Jocelyn there and she gave us the tour, fantastic lady and incredible site.

  7. GrumpenKraut Silver badge

    Great article, and

    > ...a tank of 20 tonnes of gas exploded when a worker on top was careless with a blowtorch.

    thanks for the laugh!

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Great article, and

      That's an, erm, interesting sense of humour you've got there mate.

  8. Jim O'Reilly

    I was at the announcement of the pulsar

    I had just started my BA senior year radio-astronomy project and remember walking into to an impromptu demonstration of the pulsar with Jocelyn Bell and Tony Hewish playing a bleeping sound over a loudspeaker, interspersed with excited explanations....heady stuff!

    I spent several months going back and forth to Lord's Bridge,, gathering data using some dipoles spread over two metal frames. Two of us created sort of an equivalent of the railroad antennae in the field next to the One-Mile setup, carrying the frames back and forth manually and using a theodolite to position them.

    Having learnt FORTRAN and written a huge program to process the results, we had a bit of spare time and sat down with Steven Hawking to figure out all sorts of corrections, including Einstein's relativistic adjustments.

    Looking back, it was one heck of a great time!

  9. All names Taken

    OMG he's back?

    Now this is why public funding and public fundedness is or should be a dead dodo, a parrot that ain't a parrot no more, and a trex fossil of gargantuan portions and proportions no?

    It just kills the passion, motivation and aspiration replacing it with necromantic book(slogging) keeping and should be committed committee inspired design.

    Or is it just me?

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: OMG he's back?

      Yes, it's just you.

  10. itzman

    I visited it in the 60s

    It looks the same now as it did then..

  11. Tom 7 Silver badge

    With this here internet thingy

    could not some geek in australia and me get together and do interferometry. I'm guessing with GPS we could actually sync quite accurately!

    Crowd interferometry could be fun!

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pulsar GPS?

    The article stated:

    "And some believe [...] spacecraft could navigate using pulsars as a kind of compass or GPS. [...] Whether this is feasible is another matter."

    On 3rd Feb 2016, New Scientist explained that yes, it's certainly a viable idea (published in NS print edition dated 6/2/2016):

    "In 2013, Werner Becker at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich, Germany, calculated that pulsar navigation could be accurate to the nearest 5 kilometres (Acta Futura, vol 7, p 11). Others suggest it could be even more precise. “We feel that on a deep-space mission, we could maybe get down to a 1 km solution and maybe a bit better,” says Keith Gendreau, also at the Goddard Space Flight Center."

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Pulsar GPS?

      More like LORAN than GPS, I'd think.

    2. Jonathan Richards 1 Silver badge

      Re: Pulsar GPS?

      Both Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft carry a plaque indicating the position of the Sun in relation to pulsars, so the first people to use pulsar navigation may not be people at all...

      Wikipedia article

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ha ha

    Technically they discovered a "pulsating radio star", which they contracted to "pulsar". That they are due to a type of neutron star is speculative, and frankly, laughable, all the laboratory evidence suggests that more than 100 or so neutrons is unstable ("Island of stability").

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Ha ha

      Laboratory experiments also have problems holding a couple of kg of hydrogen together long enough for it to fuse - so the idea that the sun exists is laughable

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: Ha ha

      all the laboratory evidence suggests that more than 100 or so neutrons is unstable

      You are a dumb clod who couldn't use a Psi if it bit him in the arse. Please don't tell anyone.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ha ha

        Carefully does it, he might turn out to be 'unstable',lol.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Ha ha

      When you're looking at a bunch of around 100 neutrons, the scale is such that gravitational effects are irrelevant.

      When you're dealing with a star-size mass, gravitational effects are not irrelevant.

      Very roughly, that's why neutron stars can exist while at the same time atomic nuclei with too many neutrons don't last very long.

  14. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Title picture

    Does anyone else 'see' a dolphin in that image?

    Or should I lay off the 'shrooms for a while?

  15. Potemkine Silver badge

    "Eventually the munitions were loaded into ships that were deliberately sunk at sea"

    Homer Simpson would probably have solved the problem using the same solution.

  16. hugo tyson
    Thumb Up


    Just: thanks for the article - great stuff, I enjoyed that day out enormously; thanks to Cambridge Wireless too of course.

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