When it comes to masters of popularizing science, most Americans think of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, “The Science Guy.” And while all three are great at explaining scientific matters to non-scientists, it’s probably fair to say that none of them comes close to having the impact of astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who for more than 50 years hosted a television program called “The Sky at Night” on the BBC.
Moore, who died Sunday at the age of 89, inspired generations of Britons to take up astronomy as both a hobby and a profession.
Patrick Alfred Caldwell Moore was born in 1923. By the age of six, he’d already found a calling.
“It was a rainy afternoon, and I had nothing to do,” Moore once reminisced. “I curled up in the armchair, and by my side was a bookshelf, and on that bookshelf was a small book called The Story of the Solar System.”
“It was published in 1898, and it wasn’t a boy’s book, but I could read it. And I decided this was interesting, and should be pushed along.”
Pushed along is really an understatement. At the age of 13, Moore published and presented his first paper to the British Astronomical Association. It was about craters on the moon’s surface.
At 16, he lied about his age, faked his medical tests, and passed up a place at Cambridge, all in order to join the Royal Air Force during World War II.
His experiences, which included a visit to Dachau, made him a lifelong opponent of war.
Moore’s fiancé also died during a World War II bombing raid. Moore never married.
After the war, he taught and spent time building his own telescopes.
Then, in 1957, the BBC decided to launch a TV astronomy program, and asked Moore to host it.
“I remember saying ‘what a good idea,’” Moore recalled in a 1992 interview. “And the BBC said we’d create a program called Starmap – we actually altered the name to The Sky at Night before the first program – and the BBC said they’d put it on the air once every four weeks for three months, and see how it went.”
Fifty-plus years later, The Sky at Night continues to be a huge hit.
Moore brought incredible energy and intelligence to the show, often sounding more like a sportscaster than an astronomer.
“I used to beg to be allowed to stay up to watch The Sky at Night. And my parents kindly indulged me, and I was captivated,” says astrophysicist Brian May. “And I read one of Patrick’s books which was in the school library called The Earth, and learned about trilobites and the formation of the earth. I was hooked on astronomy, and that was it. It was to stay with me all my life.”
Well, part of May’s life anyway. He is, of course, better known as the guitarist for the rock band Queen. May eventually became good friends with Patrick Moore, and the guitarist sometimes appeared as a guest on The Sky at Night.
Patrick Moore himself was no stranger to music. In fact, Moore, a piano player, once accompanied none other than that great violinist Albert Einstein at a pre-war astronomy conference in New York.
He also enjoyed making his own wine, and was a true animal lover. Friends often remember him surrounded by cats while he worked at the old typewriter in his study.
“His cat Ptolemy was on his lap when he died,” close friend and fellow astronomer Heather Cooper told the BBC. “Patrick’s actually bequeathing quite a bit of money to cat charities, which I think is marvelous.”
More was an eccentric’s eccentric to be sure, right down to the trademark monocle he liked to wear. But in all the years he presented The Sky at Night, Moore only missed one episode.
During the years of the Cold War Space Race, both the Americans and the Soviets used his maps of the moon. He was friends with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
“Astronomy has just grown through leaps and bounds,” Aldrin said. “And it’s people like Patrick who have been able to put it in perspective, and to help people understand the enormity of the universe.”
Patrick Moore liked to say on The Sky at Night: “We are a very, very small speck in the universe…about as important as a single ant in the whole of the world.”
That from the man who always said he wanted to be remembered merely as “an amateur astronomer who played cricket…and the xylophone.”