Sir Patrick Moore: 1923 – 2012


(c) BBC


It was appropriate that the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who died six days ago, dedicated his life to surveying the universe.  For anyone who grew up accustomed to the monthly appearances of his astronomy-themed TV show The Sky at Night on late-evening BBC television – indeed, its opening music, At the Castle Gate composed by Jean Sibelius, rang out of one’s TV set with a lunar-cycle regularity – Moore seemed as old as the universe.


He wasn’t quite so aged, of course, but in television terms he was astonishingly venerable.  The Sky at Night, with Moore at the helm, was first broadcast on April 27th, 1957, five months before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into an elliptical low-earth orbit.  That meant Moore was presenting the show while Jack Webb was still playing Joe Friday in Dragnet and Phil Silvers was still performing as Sergeant Bilko.  Quatermass II, the second of Nigel Kneale’s seminal 1950s sci-fi horror dramas featuring the rocket scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass, had aired but not the third one, Quatermass and the Pit.  He was on TV two years before The Twilight Zone, a show indelibly linked in most people’s minds with black-and-white 1950s telly.  He was also broadcasting two years before Rawhide, three years before Coronation Street and five years before Doctor Who.


Moore continued to front The Sky at Night right up until its December 2012 episode, which was broadcast just before his death.  Only once did he miss presenting an episode of it, in July 2004, when he almost died from salmonellosis after eating an infected goose egg.  During that time, Moore’s guests on the show included Wernher von Braun, Arthur C. Clarke, Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan and Sir Bernard Lovell, the radio astronomer and director of Jodrell Bank Observatory who died very recently himself.  (Lovell claimed that during the Cold War the Soviets had tried to kill him with radiation poisoning.  It’s said too that Nigel Kneale was sufficiently inspired by him to give his fictional scientist-hero Quatermass the same first name, Bernard.)  Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin also turned up on The Sky at Night and it was a point of pride with Moore that he was the only person in history to have met Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin and Orville Wright.


But he was far more than a TV-presenting head.  As an astronomer, he remained stubbornly amateur and unqualified, having turned down the offer of an academic grant and the opportunity to study at Cambridge University following World War II.  Nonetheless, he was only amateur astronomer ever to be granted membership of the International Astronomical Union.  The moon was his special subject and he was credited with discovering the Marie Orientale, the Eastern Sea, though Moore later said the German astronomer Julius Heinrich Franz had found it first.  He came up with the term ‘transient lunar phenomenon’ (TLP) to describe the mysterious light and colour changes that briefly occur on patches of the moon’s surface.  In the middle of the Cold War, the Soviets took a shine to Moore and invited him over to meet Gagarin – they obviously preferred him to Sir Bernard Lovell – and he was also the first Western astronomer to see photographs taken by the Soviet Luna 3 probe in 1959, which allowed the moon’s far side to be mapped for the first time.


It hardly got mentioned in the obituaries this week, but Moore was also a writer of fiction – more precisely, of juvenile science fiction.  He wrote several series of rip-roaring sci-fi children’s books that featured heroic (and obviously, scientific) teenage characters with names like Gregory Quest (1955-1956), Maurice Gray (1955-1959), Robin North (1960-1964) and Scott Saunders (1977-1979).  Their titles conjure up images of a simpler and more optimistic sci-fi era: Quest of the Spaceways, Captives of the Moon, Spy in Space, The Terror Star and so on.  His writing earned him an entry in the online Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction:


Eccentric to say the least – as well as astronomy and writing children’s science fiction, his enthusiasms included cricket, playing the xylophone, monocle-wearing and chess (he carried a pocket-sized chess set with him at all times) – his demeanour on The Sky at Night was that of a very old-style and somewhat intimidating school teacher.  His urgent manner and the way his body barely seemed to fit into its tightly-buttoned suit gave him an aura of impatience and cantankerousness, even when he wasn’t feeling tetchy.  However, given the technical problems he had to deal with on The Sky at Night, especially the dreadful British weather that spoiled many a view of a meteor shower, a passing comet or a lunar eclipse, any tetchiness was justified.  There was also a moment during a live TV commentary about the Luna 4 probe when he opened his mouth to speak and a huge fly buzzed into it.  Old pro that he was, Moore kept talking to the camera.  As he remarked later, the experience wasn’t pleasant for him, but it was worse for the fly.


The British public, even the many who didn’t know or care anything about astronomy, took him to their hearts as a lovable eccentric, though if you were within hearing range of him when he started expounding his political views, he might have seemed less lovable.  In his autobiography, published in 2003, he readily described his politics as being to the right of Attila the Hun’s and he professed to taking a dim view of immigrants, homosexuals and any women with ideas above their station.  He was never short of a uncomplimentary word to say about the Germans – the ‘Krauts’ – though as his fiancé Lorna, who’d served during World War II as an ambulance driver, was killed by a German bomb that struck her vehicle in 1943, he might be excused that particular belligerence.  Inevitably, the New Statesman has already been debating whether we should be mourning the death of someone with Moore’s political outlook:


But he wasn’t wholly blimpish.  He had a loathing for fox-hunting and the aristocratic types who indulged in it – ‘filthy people’, he called them once.  (An animal lover, he gave support to various animal charities and when he died at his home the other day, it was in the company of his beloved cat Ptolemy.)  He also opposed capital punishment and disliked George W. Bush because of the Iraq War.  He spent three years serving as director of the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, but was glad to leave the province because he was dismayed by the anti-Catholic prejudice he saw there.


Reactionary curmudgeon he may have been, but Moore always seemed popular with the younger and more right-on members of Britain’s comedy set.  During the 1970s he made so many guest appearances in The Goodies, a show best described as the anarchic kid-brother to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, that he seemed almost a semi-regular on it.  In one episode of The Goodies, Animals, there was a spoof nature documentary that studied the BBC’s science-programme presenters as if they were exotic species of wildlife.  Moore was seen perched up a tree with a telescope and was described “a creature perfectly adapted to living at night… so specialised that it’s almost lost the use of its neglected eye”:


He appeared in a radio instalment of Douglas Adams’ celebrated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was good mates with impersonator Jon Culshaw, who like all British impersonators in the last half-century had honed his own impersonation of Moore to perfection.  When Culshaw gave Moore a prank phone call on his show Dead Ringers, pretending to be Doctor Who and asking for advice on where to land on Mars, Moore wasn’t in the least bit ruffled and gave him some suggestions:  He was a guest too on Paul Merton’s name-your-pet-hates show Room 101 where, politically incorrect as ever, one of the things he placed in Room 101 were ‘women newsreaders’.  Merton ended the programme with a clip showing Culshaw and a bemused-looking Moore attempting to play the Prodigy song Firestarter on a pair of xylophones:


Though Moore described all modern pop and rock music as ‘indescribably awful’, he struck up a friendship with Queen guitarist Brian May, who long before had abandoned his studies for a PhD at the Imperial College Department of Physics and Mathematics to join Freddie Mercury and co (though he did co-author two research papers, Mgl Emission in the Night Sky Spectrum and An Investigation of the Motion of Zodiacal Dust Particles [Part 1], in 1972 and 1973).  I was never much of a Queen fan, at least, not after News of the World in 1977, but I liked how after Mercury’s death in 1991 May went back to his studies and completed his PhD in astrophysics, at Moore’s urging.  Given Moore’s uncharitable opinion of rock music, he probably assumed May was on his way to getting a proper job at last:


Meanwhile, Alex James – bassist with legendary 1990s Britpop band Blur, columnist, cheesemaker and ‘artist in residence’ at the Astrophysics Department of the University of Oxford – was such a Moore fan that he went and interviewed him for the Idler magazine in 2001.  The end result was, predictably, a bit surreal:


As for myself, I recall being seven or eight years old and managing to stay up late a couple of times to see Moore on The Sky at Night.  Back then I was still a little scared of the dark.  If I was no longer scared of the dark in my bedroom, I certainly felt uneasy at night when I stepped out of the house.  I lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland, where there were few streetlights and there were a lot of ghost stories doing the rounds.  But then I saw Moore on television extolling the wonders of the night-sky and his gruff enthusiasm was infectious.  After that, when I was outside, I only had to look upwards – at least, when the weather conditions allowed me to see anything – and there’d be enough stuff up there to take my mind off what might be lurking in the dark at ground level.  I can still remember, for instance, my excitement the first time I saw a meteor.  And generally, the rural Irish sky on a cloudless night was a spectacular sight.


So thanks for the coping strategy, Sir Patrick.