Wednesday 12 December 2012

Patrick Moore (1923 - 2012)

At least in the British Isles, it's hard to overstate the influence of Patrick Moore in shaping the popular perception of astronomy. Over his long broadcasting career, he stimulated the imaginations of millions and directly inspired the career choice of several generations of space scientist. Never a professional astronomer, and with no formal education in that direction, Moore nonetheless commanded the utmost respect of his peers - not just professional astronomers, but the astronauts who came to depend on his scrupulously accurate lunar maps. No one knew the Moon better than Patrick. In my whole professional career, I never met a space scientist who didn't admire him.

I doubt that there's anyone with the slightest interest in astronomy who does not own a book with Patrick's name on it somewhere. For many Christmases, I could count on his astronomy yearbook being among my presents - and since those yearbooks contained serious things like tables and maps and little scholarly articles by actual scientists, they felt like a form of admission to a more grown-up academic world, one that I would soon be doing my level best to enter. I had many other books by Patrick, of course - big hardcovers on general astronomy, smaller hardcovers on individual planets and celestial bodies. For those of us who had first encountered him on television, the voice - the old-fashioned diction, the enthusiasm, the gentle self-deprecation - came through very strongly. It was impossible not to hear Patrick's mile-a-minute delivery, even as you were reading about the discovery of the white spot on Saturn or radar mapping of Venus.

I met him once, but then so did many. The one constancy running through these many accounts of personal meetings with the man is that what you saw on television was essentially what you got in real life. It wasn't an act, a persona cooked up for the camera - this was just the way he was, bumbling and infectious and full of stories. By all accounts he remained utterly unchanged until the end.

Somewhere around 1987 I was involved with the Newcastle University astronomical society. I think I was the treasurer, although it's hard to think of a more spectacular mismatch of administrative position and ability. Me, as treasurer? What were they thinking? That money was only "resting" in my account, as Ted Crilly was given to say.

One day Patrick came to speak at the university. I forget now how the arrangement came about, or what the society's precise role was in the evening, although I suspect that it was already in the calendar when my friends Henry, Julyan and I took over the committee positions. Whatever the case, we were tasked with collecting Patrick from a book signing in central Newcastle and conveying him back to the university, where there would be tea and biscuits before his talk. Two or possibly three of us went down to the bookshop, where Patrick had just concluded his signing. It was a very warm day in early summer, and I had anticipated that Patrick might wish to take a taxi back through town to avoid either tiring himself out or being caught up in the crowds, but no, he was adamant that we would walk and so we did, the enormously tall, three-piece-suited and monocled Patrick bounding ahead, still keeping his mile-a-minute outpouring of stories and anecdotes. He seemed to me to be fairly ancient even then, although he would have been a relatively youthful 64 - and indeed, there was no infirmity or lack of energy. Nor did he seem in the least bit self-conscious about being Patrick Moore, or in any way bothered that he might be noticed, detained or mocked for his obvious and unfashionable eccentricities. My recollection, in fact, is that no one bothered him at all although it's hard not see how they could have failed to recognise him.

The rest of the evening went very well. Oddly, I don't remember the talk at all, but I do have a very vivid recollection of taking tea and biscuits beforehand, and Patrick telling us the story about the time he swallowed a fly on live television. I suspect I may have already heard it, and I've certainly heard it since, but it was a good story, well told, and I doubt that any of us minded. He was a limitless mine of stories. This was a man who had met the first man to fly and the first man to walk on the Moon - no small achievement. A life, as they say, well lived. After the talk we took him to dinner in (I think) a private room at the university, where a fine time was had. I remember asking him about the possibility of water under the ice of Europa - I was thinking about using it in a story.

He was a complex man with political views that were not to my taste - fiercely patriotic, not overly fond of the giving of foreign aid. In later life he became a vocal supporter of the UK Independence Party. On the other hand, he opposed foxhunting. He was said to have old-fashioned views on gender, but on the other hand he was massively encouraging when it came to women in science. In the nineteen eighties, in my recollection, you could count the number of female scientific role models in the popular media on one finger  - it was Heather Couper, and nobody else. But Heather Couper had written to Patrick Moore at the age of 16, asking whether he thought she might be able to have a career in astronomy, and he had written back in the most encouraging terms, assuring her that "being a girl was no handicap at all". Heather Couper herself must have had a tremendous effect on the perception of women in science, and perhaps Patrick played a small part in that sea-change.

It was my enormous privilege to have met him.


  1. Erm: "education in that education"?

  2. Thanks, fixed now! You know how many times I read that paragraph before hitting post?

  3. Thanks for clearing up whether I was treasurer or secretrary -- I can never remember!

    My recollection of the day is the same, Al. I too don't remember the details of the talk, but I do remember the hall was packed and the talk was enthusiastically received. Real popular science.

    Let's hope Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili and, er, Dallas Campbell can keep the candle burning...

  4. I remember being worried that if he wanted a lift to the university -I think I was the only one of us with a car then- he wouldn't fit into my tiny Fiat 126, and being relieved when I heard he wanted to walk. I think Professor Runcorn had arranged the talk, but wanted us to mediate, but that's just a vague recollection.

    On Saturday night-Sunday morning, the night before he died, I was driving back from Lisbon to Granada, where I live. It was a glorious starry night, and in the hills West of Seville, far from the city lights and with almost no traffic, I parked my car in a lay-by off the road and and as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I stood and absorbed the glory of the night sky in all its splendour. That is the magic of astronomy, and I shall now associate those short minutes of silent stargazing with him.


  5. I wrote to Patrick Moore when I was maybe 10 or 11, asking about the names of the moons of Jupiter. He wrote back, a slightly scruffily typewritten letter on BBC headed notepaper. I wish I'd kept it.

  6. By the way, Alistair, it would be great if the three of us -you, Henry, and I- could meet up sometime. I can't see your email anywhere, so please email me to get in touch!

  7. Hi Julyan - I will! My email address is on my website, by the way: it's dendrocopus followed by