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Sir Patrick Moore

I know this is late. I know I should have written about his death but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say. So I shall say what I can now for it is the least I can.

Patrick Moore didn’t make me look to the stars exactly but he fostered on these rainy isles (really unsuited to star-gazing) a sort of culture that said “This is cool!” despite not exactly seeming “cool” and perhaps that is the true measure of his greatness. You didn’t even need to watch him once a month on the graveyard shift on the BBC (a slot I always thought perverse because isn’t that when you ought to be looking at things vastly more magnificent than anything the BBC could ever imagine?)

So I did physics at university and then astrophysics because it was sort of in the culture and Patrick Moore had put what is “up there” in that culture more than anyone. On the odd clear night here I look at the stars though I haven’t lugged my Tal-Mizar out for a while. It’s an ex-Sov Newtonian Reflector*. I shall do but again Cheshire is a terrible place for optical astronomy. For doing it by radio, mind…

I was there recently to see Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell FRS FRAS give a talk. Magic stuff. Just a few years ago they were going to close Jodrell Bank down**. I seem to recall that was for want of GBP3.5m which to government is the mere dust of the valence. I mean how many diversifying out-reachers can you hire for that? How many plasma TVs for MP’s second homes and what miniscule proportion is that of a far from astute submarine? But it was saved and partly this was down (I reported this way back) to a small kid who was most upset. He wanted to be an astronaut you see. My point with this digression is that the Daresbury Synchrotron was closed but the other major physical science facility in the county remains and indeed is going to be the HQ of the SKA.

Now that is cool! and the animus against the closure, the love we feel (and I have to admit I speak as a Cheshire resident who loves the stars) for things like Jodrell Bank (the talk I mentioned was packed) is in no small part due to Sir Patrick. He enthused generations of small (and not so small) children to look to the skies. To see more and be more and think more. When I applied for funding for an MSc in astrophysics at London (which I got!) my tutor (who was working on wave-guides) wished me all the best and wrote a glowing reference*** and said, “I’ve always thought astrophysics the true engine room of physics”. That from a physicist of a semi-detached discipline (to say the least) says a lot. Astrophysics is the alpha and omega and always has been. Just conjure the names! You know them all. From the old Greeks to modern Geeks (…and old Arabs and Hindus, and Chinese and…) astrophysics has been instrumental in the development of everything that separates us from the gutter***. Except it is much more than just navigation and stuff isn’t it?

And nobody on this planet over the last hundred years or so did more to promulgate this and get people caring about it than Sir Patrick. No writer or broadcaster did more to create public interest in what might possibly be regarded (by numpties) as rather abstruse science unrelated to their “real” daily lives. This is of course a myth – we are intimately bound to the stars in so many ways. The belief this is abstruse is, to be polite, complete Horlicks. Obviously. The material results of our species star-gazing over the millennia are obvious. We’d all be living in a mental Somalia and as a torch-bearer of the enlightenment that the study of the night sky brings we have been lucky to have been blessed with an advocate so brilliant as Sir Patrick.

How he managed this is fascinating. Partially of course it was his sheer erudition and joy in the subject he wrote voluminously about and partly it was because he was a true scientist (both the US and Soviet space-programs used his lunar maps) but also because “The Sky at Night” was probably about the only broadcast science show in the UK that didn’t (doesn’t?) talk down to you. And that really mattered. I recall, not long-since, seeing Brian Cox trying to explain the second law of thermodynamics by building a sand-castle in Nambia. Quite why the Coxster couldn’t have built one in Scarborough is utterly beyond me. Certainly, I learned my Stat Mech in Lecture Theartre B1, Nottingham University. And that was the Moore difference. He told it how it was and did so brilliantly without the pointless air-miles and the moodily lit staring into the middle-distance shots whilst wondering how his hair looked. Sir Patrick clearly never gave a toss how his hair looked – it usually looked like his ‘stylist’ was “Through a Hedge Backwards”, Brighton. He was just there and talked and explained. He was the exact opposite of cunning stunts pop-science with the endless re-caps you see today. Frequently he would also be talking to real top folks in the field. His “machine gun delivery” (ref every MSM obituary I read) was the true antithesis of most pop-sci which is narrated at the rate and style of a wearisome parent trying to explain for the umpteenth time to their toddler that eating mud is not a good idea. We are not all mud-eating toddlers. In short watching Moore made me (and so many others****) feel clever. To feel that the skies were ours to take rather than drowning like the slowly boiling frog in the idea that science is for other people and needs to be explained v e r y s l o w l y to the great unwashed. Perhaps, in that context, it is not surprising that when de-mobbed from the RAF he turned down a scholarship at Cambridge and just plowed his own furrow. But what a furrow!

I could write so much more (no pun intended) but a long and wondrous life has ended. I’d be here all day if I mentioned Sir Patrick’s other achievements or his (generally excellent) political beliefs (particularly on his falling out with the Liberal party over them hitching their wagon to the SDP). But…

There is one thing though that sums up this thoroughly irascibly brilliant British iconoclast that I must mention. At the 1981 Royal Variety Performance he played the Sex Pistol’s “Anarchy in the UK” (“God save the Queen and the fascist regime…”) on xylophone. That is the mark of a man. And not just any man but an Englishman.

So farewell Sir Patrick! You were unique and brilliant. And I have no idea who can now fill your shoes. You are greatly missed already. And this in a terrible year for spacer deaths. Join Neil and Sally out there in the star-spangled firmament. Hit c Sir! (He also once played a duet with Einstein – Patrick on piano and Albert on the fiddle).

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore CBE, FRS, FRAS (4 March 1923 – 9 December 2012)

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

- Sarah Williams

* I was away when my university house-mates received a large, heavy, old-style wooden case (think “Raiders of the Lost Ark) from Russia with stenciled Cyrillic on it. They knew I was doing physics so wondered what I’d got. And yes, enriched uranium was on the discussion list. Thankfully this was well before 9/11 or I’d have been extraordinarily renditioned.
** As a listed building it was going to become a “heritage site”. “Look at what we used to be able to do kiddies!” Like the pyramids or some-such. Actually Stonehenge is perhaps more appropriate but the Pyramids of Giza are aligned with Orion.
*** The Oscar Wilde ref is implicit.
**** As a young girl the astronomer Heather Couper wrote to Moore asking if it was OK to be an astronomer if you’re a girl. She still has the letter she received back saying, “Not a problem” and encouraging her greatly. I seem to recall she spent some time working in Top-Shop and then though bugger this for a game of soldiers and got into Leicester University. Last I heard she was a professor at Gresham College, London.

20 Comments

  1. john in cheshire says:

    I’d second that NickM, even though I rarely watched The Sky at Night, I recognised and appreciated what Patrick Moore did with his life; which was much greater than the vast majority of people inhabiting our island nation.

  2. RAB says:

    Ace post Nick, absolutely ACE!

    You have done the Great old man proud. And I know how hard it is, when you so much about a subject, to condense it down to a Post, as you do about this one.

    The Sky at Night is the longest running TV programme in the history of Television. It has been there all my life, let alone yours. I have always been more an artist than a scientist, but that’s not to say that I have no understanding of Science, I have, I was good at it, it’s just that the awe and majesty; the sheer poetry of the Universe always outstripped the pure Maths and Physics for me. But to scientists like you, those are poetry in themselves.

    As a kid, living in Caerphilly with not much urban light pollution, so you could really see the sky, I used to watch The Sky at Night and then go out into our garden and look at the Sky, trying to get my head around Infinity and light years and what I’m looking at may not actually exist at the point in time I’m looking at it. Ending up feeling humbler and smaller than a grain of sand on a beach confronted with the magnificence of the Cosmos, yet inspired to search and question and explore further and further into that great infinity.

    That was Patrick’s legacy for those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. He will be welcomed with open arms back into that stardust from which we all came.

  3. TomO says:

    Thanks – made my eyes water as much as reading Chris Lintott’s tribute … sniffle…

  4. Julie near Chicago says:

    Nick, what an absolutely awesome tribute! You make me very sorry that I never saw one of his shows. And let me echo RAB: When you care so much about your subject, indeed it is terribly difficult to keep down to a few paragraphs, full of both light and heat–in the best sense of both.

    Thank you.

  5. Sam Duncan says:

    Good tribute, Nick. I’d intended to do something myself but, as you say, it’s hard to know what to write. And it’s more fitting that you should do it anyway.

    “The Sky at Night” was probably about the only broadcast science show in the UK that didn’t (doesn’t?) talk down to you.

    That’s it. Moore wasn’t a “presenter”; he was an astronomer who came on the telly and told you what he knew. Not “about what he knew”; he just told you the things he knew, absolutely straight. Once. If you didn’t catch it, send off for the newsletter. He knew what questions to ask his guests, too. And he listened to their answers. There are precious few – if any – remotely like him on TV. (Plenty in sport, oddly enough, but not in other factual programming.)

    I’d forgotten about his falling out with the Liberals. Whattaguy. RIP, Sir Patrick.

  6. Mr Ed says:

    Thank you for a wonderful tribute to a great man, whose life was ruined by war, losing his fiancée, killed in a bombing raid. He served bravely in the grim task of navigator in Bomber Command, reputedly landing his ‘plane after the pilots were killed.

    The Royal Society showed its true worth by not electing him as a Fellow, probably on political rather than snobbsh grounds.

  7. RAB says:

    Easily sorted Julie.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2trWI63lMMc

    Can you imagine any other country than Britain producing first Sir Patrick Moore, and then a programme like The Sky at Night? And that’s only a taste.

    Like Sam said, he told it to you once, assuming you were literate and intelligent or you wouldn’t be watching.

  8. Steve Brown says:

    Sir Patrick Moore lived in a house called Farthings, just round the corner from where I live in Selsey. He treasured being regarded as ‘just another resident’ and being treated as such, although he was fiercely defensive of the village and its character. He was always vehemently opposed to modern ‘developments’ outwith the precincts of the existing village.
    Did you know that Sir Patrick was the only person ever to meet Orville Wright (the first man to fly), Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space), and Neil Armstrong (the first man on the moon)?

  9. Julie near Chicago says:

    Well sorted indeed, RAB! Thank you very much. I’d thank you even more if you’d advised me to bring popcorn…there’s lots more where that came from, going by the sidebar! I also enjoyed the object lesson refuting the slander that women scientists are all homely and unfeminine. :>)

    Totally, totally cool. Excuse me now, while I do fix some popcorn…or perhaps cheese toasties.

  10. RAB says:

    I’ll have some of the cheese toasties, but Popcorn? Edible Polystyrene as far as I am concerned. I’m a red skinned peanut man myself.

    Lot’s more? oh god yes. It was the longest running tv show in world history, and the Progressives at the Beeb never shut it down. Either they couldn’t find a good excuse, or they just ignored it like the Shipping Forcast. He was no fan of Global warming either, I’m sure… The ice caps are melting on Mars and they are here. Looks like Solar influence to me.

    Will they carry on with the Sky at Night? I’m sure they’ll try, but it’s gonna be like the Grateful Dead without Garcia.

  11. John Galt says:

    I was fascinated to know how Sir Patrick met Orville Wright as he died years before The Sky at Night started and found the following:

    PEOPLE I HAVE MET
    by Sir Patrick Moore

    My life now goes back a long way. I am now classed as a Senior Citizen (translation, Old Coot) and inevitably I have met a good many fascinating people. So I will begin at the very start of the war, when I said I was eighteen (they believed me!) and I went straight across the Atlantic to learn how to fly. Actually I did my training in Canada, but on two occasions, during brief spells of leave, I went down to the United States.

    Flying heroes

    On the first occasion, at a small gathering, I met no less a person than Orville Wright, the very first man to go aloft in a heavier-than-air machine. His brother Wilbur had died in 1912, which was rather before my time. Orville Wright did very little flying after 1920, and, as he told me, he was saddened to see aircraft used in warfare. He was quiet, unassuming – I liked him immensely, and I regret that I met him only once. Presumably there are now no people who can remember that epic flight from Kitty Hawk, a century ago.

    More here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/space/skyatnight/patrickmoore_article.shtml

  12. CountingCats says:

    Popcorn good. with butter and salt, yum.

  13. Sam Duncan says:

    “Either they couldn’t find a good excuse, or they just ignored it like the Shipping Forcast.”

    The latter, I expect, considering the irregular time slots it was given.

    I imagine they’ll try to keep it going. That bloke they seem to have been grooming to take over for about 20 years – I always forget his name… Linott? – will be perfectly competent (better than most, being a Moore protegé), but lacks personality. Which might not be a bad thing, come to think of it. I mean, they might try to give us Brian bloody Cox.

    “He was no fan of Global warming either, I’m sure… The ice caps are melting on Mars and they are here.”

    Another thing I’d forgotten. It’s those little green men with their 4×4 flying saucers.

  14. NickM says:

    Sam,
    The Coxster is too busy staring into middle distance sunsets being moody and looking like an ageing Brit-popper and professional Mancunian. What about Dr Brian May? Queen aren’t likely to come-back whilst Freddie is still dead and May has a PhD in the interstellar medium (from Surrey), was a mate of (and a co-author with Sir Patrick). , is fairly charismatic, knows his stuff and also has supremely mad hair. He’d be my choice…

    …almost but I don’t hear the phone ringing. Bugger.

  15. RAB says:

    Good choice there Nick (apart from your good self of course.) Moore played the Ukulele as well as the Xylophone, but May plays electric guitar rather well…

    Wanna hear the Music of The Spheres?… Kerrang! Dig that feedback, just like an echo of the Big Bang…

  16. Paul Marks says:

    Sir Patrick was a great man.

  17. John Galt says:

    Brian May seems pretty annoyed that this has come out at all.

    Presumably he bought the house to stop it being snaffled by the local council if ever Patrick had to go into a nursing home. I doubt the old man would ever have allowed that to happen, he’d probably have died purposely just on principle!

    Although it is too early to comment, the hope is that Farthings can be brought into being as a combined museum to Sir Patrick as well as continuing to serve as a home for the UK amateur astronomy community. Certainly the latter is what Sir Patrick would wish even if he wouldn’t acknowledge the former.

    It’s interesting that shadows of his work in RAF Military Intelligence is coming out, this was something that was speculated, but Sir Patrick would never talk about other than in his final years to acknowledge that he was involved with military intelligence, but no more than that.

  18. RAB says:

    Brian May seems pretty annoyed that this has come out at all.

    Which only confirms my opinion of what a good bloke he is. Most stars would have gone to the papers themselves with it.

    We are just not going to see the like of Patrick’s generation again. Quick anecdote…

    We had a customer, a widow of a stockbroker, and I’d deliver her groceries. The back door was always open and I couldn’t help noticing that fresh coffee was always brewing, radio 3 would be on, and a copy of the Times on the table open at the crossword, and always completed. She was a lovely lady, but eventually she died. Her daughter came to clear the house, as you do, and discovered in her personal papers, documents that said she’d been at Bletchley Park. Her daughter was gobsmacked. She had never ever mentioned it, even to her family.

  19. NickM says:

    RAB,
    One of the most poignant stories I heard of Ultra was of a lady who had worked there during the war and had a stroke during the 1980s. Well, she’s taken to hospital and all and what worried her most was not whether she would walk again or whether she would die or whatever but whether in her state she would blab about what she had sworn life-long secrecy about.

    The hardest burden, perhaps, was taken by young, fit, men. They got a lot of stick along the lines of “Are you a conshie, shouldn’t you with Monty?” etc and just couldn’t say they were doing more to win than they could as a squaddie and didn’t really have the choice anyway. Can you imagine how maddening that must be?

    Can you imagine what it must be like to be slagged off like that by a mother whose son was on an Arctic convey and nearly torpedoed and you just know it was your work on Enigma/Lorenz that meant he wasn’t but you can’t say a damn thing. It must have been bloody awful.

    To have played so important a role and never been able to say anything for fifty years…

    “The geese that laid the golden eggs but neve caackled” – Churchill.

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