Read about the dizzy heights a Cheshire secretary has risen to as personal assistant to the director of Jodrell Bank's radio astronomy laboratory. This article was published by The Guardian and is now on its website.
If extraterrestrials are ever found in space, Cheshire secretary Janet Eaton will be one of the first to know. Since 1966, she has worked at the Nuffield radio astronomy laboratories at Jodrell Bank, home for nearly 50 years to the world's second largest fully steerable radio telescope.
Jodrell Bank, a former botanical station, lies 20 miles south of Manchester, buried in deepest Cheshire. The sudden image of the gigantic 250ft white bowl of the Lovell Telescope looming up behind the hedgerows of the leafy green lanes is a dramatic sight.
Eaton, now 49, was 16 and studying shorthand-typing at a further education college when her mother saw an advertisement for a clerk typist in the general office. She got the job, and 33 years later is personal assistant to the director.
"I was not expecting to stay, but changes here happened at the right time for me. After about seven years, I moved office to work for the chief engineer and the engineering group and also took over the postgraduate course administration." Her career continued to develop until Professor (later Sir Francis) Graham Smith took over from founder Sir Bernard Lovell in 1988, and she was appointed his secretary. Her current boss, Professor Andrew Lyne, is the third director she has worked for.
Lyne is an expert in pulsars, or rapidly rotating neutron stars. Jodrell Bank has been one of the world's leading centres for pulsar study for 30 years, having discovered two-thirds of those known. Other major discoveries include the first detection of radio waves from the Andromeda galaxy and the discovery of the first gravitational lens.
Not that such major scientific breakthroughs interrupt the steady pace of life at Jodrell Bank. "The academics aren't over-effusive when a big breakthrough happens," says Eaton. "They don't really celebrate, but there's a general feeling of 'well done', and slaps on the back. It's what they are working for, so they tend to take it in their stride."
Eaton's office is filled with filing cabinets, her word processor and an electric typewriter. "I remember getting the first word processor," she says. "I found it quite an upheaval and received a bit of on-site training, otherwise I was self-taught. I look back to when I worked with typewriters and carbon paper and new technology has been a marvellous progression." Despite having discovered email, however, she admits to relying still on her electric typewriter for short notes and envelopes.
But her computer skills come in handy three times a year, when Eaton produces an internal staff newsletter, collating, writing and designing all the content herself. She also administers the postgraduate courses run from Jodrell, which is part of the university of Manchester, and coordinates travel and hotel bookings and fields press enquiries. With only four secretarial staff among the centre's 100 academics, students and technicians, she is kept busy. "Every day is different. There are all sorts of little problems that need sorting out. I get a chance to see and meet a variety of people, which is what attracted to me to stay."
The Lovell telescope has been at the forefront of space observation since 1957. The original Mark 1 telescope was the only one in the west capable of tracking the carrier rocket of the Soviet Union's first space satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957. And in 1966, the year Eaton joined the observatory, Jodrell scientists surprised Russia by intercepting encoded messages from the surface of the moon. One of the station's smaller telescopes now monitors the Crab pulsar, the remains of a star that exploded in 1054.
The SETI project (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) is a recent innovation designed to track emissions from space to search for intelligent life in the Milky Way. Working with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, the Lovell monitors the skies for 20 nights twice a year. While there are a couple of false alarms each week from earth-bound interference, as yet there has been no identified extraterrestrial communication. Whether Eaton will still be in the job when that happens lies in the stars.