On 3rd August 2007, Jodrell Bank Observatory will be hosting a unique spectacle. As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Lovell radio Telescope, a specially-commissioned musical composition will be performed, during which the Telescope will literally be ‘playing the universe’.

The event celebrates the Lovell Telescope as a functional instrument for measuring space and time and as a striking sculptural object situated within a landscape. The music has been composed by Jem Finer and Ansuman Biswas. Finer, of ‘The Pogues’, has previously received critical acclaim for his ‘Longplayer’ composition, a computer-generated piece designed to last for one thousand years. Biswas has an international artistic practice ranging across live art, music, film, theatre and writing and is best known for ‘CAT’, a comparative study of quantum physics and yogic philosophy. The piece to be performed at Jodrell Bank is a remarkable collaboration between recognized artists and radio astronomers at the University of Manchester’s world-famous observatory.

The weekend of 3rd-5th August sees Jodrell Bank Observatory hosting the ‘First Light Festival’, marking the golden jubilee of the first observations with the Lovell Telescope. In astronomy, ‘First Light’ has several connotations. It generally refers to the first data gathered by new instruments, but in observational astronomy ‘First Light’ refers to that moment in the evolution of the universe when it had cooled sufficiently to allow light to pass unhindered.

Finer described the artwork as ‘part of a long continuum’. ‘Jodrell Bank is built on an ancient burial site, a Bronze Age long barrow,’ he said. ‘For many millennia people have stood in this place, sending their thoughts up into the dark of the sky which is filled with stars, and down into the dark of the underworld which holds glimmering souls. Standing on the cusp of the deep time of the universe above and the archeological and geological time below, Jodrell Bank is a meeting point, a bowl standing between the hemisphere of the heavens and the curve of the earth’.

The ‘First Light Festival’ at Jodrell Bank uses the 50th anniversary of the first observations with the Lovell Telescope as an opportunity to showcase the observational techniques of modern astrophysics and discuss the key question of how the universe began in the Big Bang. Dr Tim O’Brien, Head of Outreach at Jodrell Bank said ‘this whole weekend is about the Telescope, the engineering that allows it to probe the universe and the fundamental science it enables. We’re very excited about using it in a live musical creation.’

Finer and Biswas, along with Jodrell Bank astronomers, will use the Lovell Telescope itself as a live musical instrument and physical focus. Choreographed to track a number of celestial objects, as it turns and tilts it will relay a live stream of radio data while microphones attached to its structure will amplify the sounds of its motion.

The musical instruments will primarily take the form of metal bowls of various sizes and tunings, harmonizing with the Telescope’s physical shape, alongside bowed metals and strings. Pre-recorded, these musical sources will form the basis of an hour long semi-improvised composition, responding and interweaving with the sounds of the Telescope. By relegating the ‘performers’ to the background, to the mixing of the different streams of sound, the Telescope itself takes centre stage, drawing a direct link between the Telescope and its terrestrial location and the universe’s deep expanses of space and time. In a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime event, the performers will create a unique composition in which the Telescope literally ‘plays the universe’.

The Telescope will also be illuminated from multiple angles, its movement creating a complex interplay of shadows and light, growing in intensity over the duration of the performance. The sole focus of the performance will be Telescope and its awe-inspiring engineering and capabilities. The girders, beams, supports and tracks built by British engineers over 50 years ago still stand, still work 24 hours a day, probing the furthest reaches of the cosmos. This one-off event now gives the Telescope a unique voice on the void above.

News Release from Jodrell Bank Observatory

Notes for editors

  1. The Lovell radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank became operational in October 1957 and its very first use was to track the carrier rocket that launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. Hence, the Telescope’s golden jubilee also marks fifty years of the Space Age. Jodrell Bank was heavily involved in the early exploration of space, tracking both US and Russian space probes. In fact, the Telescope received the very first pictures transmitted from the far side of the Moon in 1959, and the first pictures from the surface of the Moon in 1966. The University of Manchester is hosting numerous events throughout 2007 to celebrate this golden jubilee. The existing 50th anniversary programme involves a series of educational and cultural events that will use the celebration as a springboard to look to the future of engineering and science in the UK.
  2. This event is produced by a collaboration of the University of Manchester, Jodrell Bank Observatory, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Science & Technology Facilities Council and the Arts Council England.
  3. The Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious grants programme offers funding to promote open debate and dialogue between citizens and engineers on engineering issues of public interest and concern.

For more information please contact

Dr Tim O’Brien Head of Outreach Jodrell Bank Observatory Tel: 01477 571321

Dr Alastair Gunn Production Manager Jodrell Bank Observatory Tel: 01477 571321