Sir Patrick Moore: Astronomer who presented ‘The Sky At Night’ for over half a century


Derek McNally
Sunday 09 December 2012 14:29
Moore's lunar observations were used by the Soviet Union space programme
Moore's lunar observations were used by the Soviet Union space programme

Patrick Moore was a unique phenomenon in British astronomy.

He was widely known from his long-running TV series The Sky at Night, first broadcast in 1957, as the authority on all matters astronomical. The science of astronomy owes a great deal to his substantial efforts and unstinted enthusiasm in popularising astronomy for over half a century – he was the acceptable face of astronomical science. If speaking to public audiences on astronomy, it was politic to establish early that one did indeed know Patrick Moore.

Moore was perhaps the last in the great British tradition of significant contributions to science by distinguished amateurs, and was fiercely proud of his amateur status. He was born in Pinner, Middlesex in 1923, the son of Capt Charles Caldwell-Moore and his wife Gertrude, a professional opera singer. Because of childhood illness, he was unable to take up a place at Eton and the intervention of the Second World War prevented his going, as planned, to Cambridge University. His education was therefore undertaken at home, his mother being of great influence in developing his musical talents and astronomical interests.

Moore has related how, coming across a book, The Story of the Solar System, that belonged to his mother, he became completely hooked on astronomy at the age of six, so beginning a love affair lasting 83 years. At the age of 11 he was admitted as a member of the British Astronomical Association. Moore was in a line of astronomers such as Williams Herschel and Huggins whose education was largely home-based.

By a certain economy with the truth, Moore enlisted in the RAF in 1940, serving as a Navigator in Bomber Command. On discharge from the RAF, he entered the world of education for seven years, giving that up to be a freelance writer in 1952. He became a prolific writer of books (in excess of 100) and the doyenne of the public presentation of astronomy.

Moore was fascinated by the Moon and, through dedication to observing, became a highly respected lunar observer. In these days of planetary exploration of space, it is hard to realise the previous difficulties experienced by those involved in identifying and mapping small lunar features. Fine detail was often obliterated for an observer by the turbulence of the Earth’s atmosphere (known as “seeing”) and a good observer had to utilise a few fleeting seconds of reduced turbulence – “good seeing” – to obtain new features or confirm previous observations. Very often, alleged detail proved spurious and debate between observers could be harsh and acrimonious. Out of such debate, a degree of consensus could be reached.

Moore’s talent as an observer was recognised quickly by HP Wilkins, Director of the Lunar Section of the British Astronomical Association, Wilkins’ view of Moore’s ability being well-documented in his book Our Moon, of 1954. Moore had a particular talent for observing those features on the far side of the Moon that were brought into view from time to time by the phenomenon of libration.

Wilkins had produced a large-scale map of the Moon (the map represented the Moon’s diameter at 300 inches) in 1946. This map was reproduced in book format in 1951. Moore worked with Wilkins to update the map with his more recent lunar observations. After Wilkins’ death in 1960, Moore finished the update using his own, Wilkins’ and the observations of others to bring out the revised second edition by Wilkins and Moore in 1961.

This achievement of the lunar observer’s skill was timely given the interest in sending spacecraft to the Moon and Moore was immensely proud of the fact that Wilkins and Moore was used by the Russians to identify lunar features on their epoch-making pictures of the Moon from space. It is an irony that space observations made lunar mapping by terrestrial observers redundant.

By the 1960s Moore was becoming a recognised television personality, having begun The Sky at Night for the BBC in 1957, just before the launch of Sputnik 1 in October that year. Moore’s timing was again impeccable: what delights, what overturns of long accepted concepts took place in the years and decades that followed. In 1957 few would have thought that 40 years later, for that long-lived programme, Moore would do a tourist description of a flyover of the surface of Venus from the results of radar mapping.

He had a gift for simple presentation of complex and difficult ideas and technologies. He knew the professional astronomical community well and kept up a flow of astronomers to explain and enlarge upon the latest findings. Again, it is hard today, when colour television and sophisticated computer simulation are developed to such high standards, to explain just how much Moore achieved in those early days of black and white. His presentational skills and sheer enthusiasm brought astronomy to many for whom science was otherwise a closed book. People were enthused and excited by the torrent of discovery in astronomy unleashed by the sheer technical ability to work without the constraint of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Moore was a prolific author, writing at least one book a year. His books conveyed his overarching love of, and enthusiasm for, astronomy. He was at his best on topics of a Solar System nature, but he tackled all aspects of astronomy. He wrote for the under-10s on astronomy and space; he wrote a textbook on astronomy for GCSE students. He also wrote on non-astronomical matters.

One of Moore’s very worthwhile undertakings was his editorship of the Yearbook of Astronomy, which he had sustained since 1962. About half of the yearbook is given over to star charts, the Moon and planets together with celestial events (eclipses, comets, meteors, etc) and a monthly guide on what to see in the sky. This would have been an excellent publication in itself – and a testament to the dedication and knowledge of Gordon Taylor – but Moore also commissioned a set of articles for each yearbook on a range of astronomical topics: history, specific objects and so on written by distinguished, young and old, amateur and professional, astronomers.

Through his writing Moore expanded the enthusiasm engendered by his Sky at Night programmes and gave many a young (and old) person an abiding interest in astronomy. Moore did not marry, the love of his life having been killed in an air raid in the Second World War, but his “family” became those talented young people he liberally encouraged to consider a career in professional astronomy. There are a significant number of today’s UK astronomical elite who received Moore’s generous, often highly personalised, support and encouragement. Yet in his autobiography, 80 Not Out, he describes himself as “The Reluctant Teacher”! However, his encouragement of young people is perhaps the greatest of his many astronomical achievements.

Moore was also an accomplished musician. From an early age he composed and he played several instruments of which the xylophone was a favourite. Several of his compositions were given public performance, for example his operas Perseus and Andromeda (1975) and Theseus (1982); and his tone poem Phaethon’s Ride, and he once performed on the xylophone at a Royal Variety Performance.

As well as being a member of the British Astronomical Association from 1934, Moore was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1949. In 1953 he was among a small number of people who founded the Junior Astronomical Society (now the Society for Popular Astronomy). He was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Jackson-Gwilt Medal in 1977 in recognition of his achievements in the popularisation of astronomy and was awarded the society’s Millennium award in 2000 in recognition of an outstanding lifetime’s work in furthering the public understanding of astronomy. In 1979 he received the prestigious Roberts-Klumpke medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

He received Honorary DScs from the universities of Lancaster in 1974, Hertfordshire (then Hatfield Polytechnic) in 1989), Birmingham in 1990), Leicester in 1995), North Staffordshire in 1995) and Portsmouth in 1998). His overseas honours were numerous. In 2001 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. He was appointed OBE in 1968 and CBE in 1988, and was knighted in 2001. It is clear from this recognition how much Moore was appreciated by the public and his profession alike.

During the 1991 General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Buenos Aires, I had asked Moore to edit the 10 issues of the General Assembly Newspaper, Cruz del Sur. We both recognised this would not be an easy task; his only stipulation was that he should be assisted by Dr John Mason. I am not at all sure what this tells us about Patrick and John, for they agreed to the same task, but with roles reversed, for the 2000 General Assembly in Manchester. I was delighted to have such a dream team on board.

What neither of us then knew was that on the penultimate morning of the Assembly, a fire in the underground car park would fill the building housing the conference centre with thick oily smoke, rendering it unusable. It was to take the fire brigade well into the afternoon before the fire was out and it was deemed safe enough for a limited number of people to enter the building without breathing apparatus to reclaim the essential data bases used by the Union and assembly organisation.

Somehow Moore eluded the eye of officialdom (and it cannot be said that he was a slight figure) and slipped in with the permitted few. He emerged with his discs containing the bulk of the final issue of Cruz del Sur. He had undertaken to deliver 10 issues, and despite the fire, a full issue No 10 awaited participants on the final day of the Assembly, enlivened by some rather typical Moore-style journalism on the upheavals of the previous day. That episode, encapsulates for me, the professionalism, the determination of Patrick Moore, always driven by his passionate dedication to the science of astronomy. We are deeply saddened that we will no longer have Patrick’s humour, music, and above all his enthusiasm, which was truly astronomical.

Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, astronomer, writer, broadcaster and xylophonist: born Pinner, Middlesex 4 March 1923; presenter, The Sky at Night 1957-; Director, Armagh Planetarium 1965-68; President, British Astronomical Association 1982-84; Honorary FRS 2001; OBE 1968, CBE 1988; Kt 2001; died 9 December 2012.

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