Sir Patrick Moore, 89, Dies At Home

December 10th, 20121:14 am @


Man Who Brought Space To The Masses

Updated: 2:17pm UK, Sunday 09 December 2012

Sir Patrick Moore – knighted in 2001 – was the astronomer who, more than any other scientist living or dead, could explain to the world at large the marvels and intricacies of the universe – and beyond.

TV personalities come and go, but Sir Patrick, famous for his monocle, outlasted them all.

For more than 40 years, he presented BBC TV’s popular The Sky At Night programme, a wonderland of information for the expert, the novice and his huge army of fans who had no particular scientific bent at all.

It became the longest running television series with the same presenter. His knowledge of outer space was prodigious and he possessed a unique ability to transmit that knowledge in a comprehensible and attractive form to the layman.

But Sir Patrick, despite an occasional irascible nature and a tendency towards eccentricity, was a kindly man and modest with it. Once he said he would like to be remembered as an amateur astronomer who played cricket and the xylophone.

Patrick Caldwell Moore was born on March 4, 1923. He was educated privately, because of illness.

His interest in astronomy was fired at the age of six when he read a book called Guide To The Solar System, published in 1898.

“I picked up that book by sheer luck and sat down by the armchair and read it through. I understood most of it – which wasn’t bad for a six-year-old.”

At the age of eight he was given a 1908 model Woodstock typewriter on which all of his 170 books were written. He claimed to be able to type at 90 words a minute – using only two fingers.

Then, when he was 11, he was nominated as a member of the British Astronomical Association – the youngest ever member. He published his first paper, on small craters in the Mare Crisium on the Moon at the age of 13 – exactly 50 years before he was to be president of the association.

The paper was accepted and he was asked to present it. “I wrote back saying, ‘Thank you for your letter. I’d be honoured but you’ve got to understand I’m only 13’. They replied: ‘We don’t see what that’s got to do with it’.”

As a young man Sir Patrick knew Albert Einstein. He said of him: “He was an interesting man, totally unworldly. He was a violin player and I accompanied him playing Saint-Saens’s ‘Swan’. I wish I had a tape of it.”

He served with the Royal Air Force from 1940 to 1945, as a navigator in Bomber Command. To get into the armed forces at only 16 he had to lie about his age and fake his medical.

The girl he was to marry was killed during the war in an air raid. He said since: “My whole life ended in one day. These things happen. You accept them.

“As far as I was concerned, that was that. It’s the reason I have never married. But I don’t like living alone.”

Nevertheless he did live alone for most of his life at his beloved Selsey in Sussex.

His career as an astronomer blossomed. Whereas hardly anybody could name the Astronomer Royal, Sir Patrick became a household name. Within the span of half a century he observed what must be the most spectacular period in the history of any science.

He always said that the Cold War never affected astronomers. “The International Astronomical Union is the only organisation I know that always has been totally international.

“At the very height of the Cold War, at one stage the president was a Russian, the vice-president was American. In space research the Cold War went on. In pure astronomy it didn’t.”

Sir Patrick’s years on television began while space travel was “bunk” in the unguarded words of Britain’s then Astronomer Royal in 1956.

But within six months Sputnik I was beeping in the heavens. Within three years men were in space and within 12 years they were on the Moon.

When Sir Patrick began broadcasting, cosmologists contemplated an eternal universe and continuous creation and birth by the Big Bang as equally unprovable.

But his popularity as an astronomer incurred the jealousy of those who regarded themselves as superior to him.

One of his great triumphs was to explain, on TV, the existence of a giant black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. Various scientists tried to do it, unsuccessfully, in a variety of weird and wonderful ways.

Sir Patrick had a map of the Milky Way drawn on the floor of the studio. He walked towards the centre and then apparently disappeared.

He passionately wanted to go into space himself. “But I’m the wrong age, the wrong nationality and the wrong medical grade. Besides,” he joked, “it would need a very massive rocket to launch me.”

He used to gaze at the stars and say: “We are a very, very small speck in the universe, about as important as a single ant in the whole of the world.”

In 2000 he suffered a paralysis in his right hand which considerably restricted his activities as a musician and a writer. He was also forced to cancel lectures.

This disability even prevented him from opening the letter telling him he was being considered for a knighthood.

He became an OBE in 1968 and a CBE in 1988. He was knighted in the 2001 New Year list “for services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting”, an honour which earned him congratulations from around the world.

In July, 2004, at the age of 81, Sir Patrick by his own admission “nearly died” after a severe bout of food poisoning caused, he believed, by a duck’s egg he had eaten.

He battled on and in 2007 presented a special 50th anniversary episode of the show from his back garden with special guests including Queen guitarist Brian May.

Five years on he hit the headlines again when in an interview to mark the show’s 55th anniversary he warned of the danger of another world war and declared “the only good Kraut is a dead Kraut”.

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