I’d always thought the huge 25-metre dish five miles north of my parents house was a telescope, which was a fair enough assumption I suppose, considering it is known locally as the Observatory. A couple of weeks ago though, I was trekking along the remnants of the Iron Age trade route that once ran the 130 miles or so from the tip of the Solent to the River Avon in Warwickshire, and found myself in the vicinity of the site during a rare open day, and I found out its actually an Advanced Meteorological Radar and, I was proudly told, the largest steerable meteorological radar in the world. After listening a bit longer, I worked out this means it’s used to look at rain and clouds.
Much of what I heard went over my head, but I managed to grasp the main premise: having sent out polarised beams, the boffins manning the dish measure how many of these beams are reflected back to the dish having bounced off rain or snow, and in doing so can work out just how much rain or snow is, or isn’t, up there. After establishing this much, I pretty much zoned in and out, briefly mentally resurfacing to ask, if these beams can be reflected by rain, whether my mobile phone will also work less effectively in the rain (brief answer: no, unless it’s a 3G phone, but your satellite telly might play up a bit more), but this just prompted a lecture on frequencies, multiplexing and bandwidth, so my mind soon wandered.
I went with it, and stepped back outside into the heat. It was outside that I actually did encounter a telescope (albeit not on as great a scale as the radar by any means), trained on the sun. I was pretty sure you’re not supposed to look at the sun through telescopes – or, indeed, at all – but I was assured that there were many filters in place to protect my eyeballs from being fried. Through the telescope, the sun was just a blurry orange taking up all that I could see. I failed to hide how unimpressed I was.
“Should I be looking for anything in particular?” I ask.
“We look out for sun spots or solar flares,” I am told.
“Many of them to be seen?” I query.
“Well, we’re just at the start of a solar cycle,” I am told matter-of-factly.
“And that means…?”
“There won’t be much happening until about 2012.”
I nod and walk away in disgust. Time wasters.
My head wasn’t in the mood for science I supposed, so I found a quiet place to sit in the sun and take in the absorbing sight of the British countryside in spring. There’s a lot of history to that patch of land, aside from all the drovers who, for thousands of years until the invention of the locomotive, would have driven livestock through the surrounding fields to settlements and towns miles and miles beyond. World War II saw the hasty construction of an airfield on the spot where the observatory now sits, and the RAF Hurricanes and a vengeful Polish Spitfire squadron which were stationed there played a significant role in the Battle of Britain as the skies above the area bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s quest for air supremacy over the country in the late summer of 1940. In November 1942, the airfield was handed over for the use of the USAF – the Hurricanes and Spitfires were replaced with Thunderbolts and Mustangs – and it was from here that scores of parachute regiments set off to be dropped behind enemy lines in France ahead of D-Day and in the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden (depicted in the book and film A Bridge Too Far). For hundreds of young men, thousands of miles from home, the fields surrounding me were the last they ever saw of Britain as they headed to battles they were never to return from. I watched the lapwings tumbling across the fields and meadows for a while, and then headed home on the prehistoric highway.
5 weeks ago