The British Science Association was saddened to learn of the death of Honorary Fellow, Sir Patrick Moore.
Tributes have flooded in to the inspirational and eccentric presenter – with scores of renowned scientists remembering Sir Patrick as one of the earliest influences encouraging them to pursue a career in science.
He will also be remembered for his dry sense of humour, famously remarking "I do what Mark Twain did, I get my copy of the daily paper, look at the obituaries page, and if I’m not there, I carry on as usual" – and was never shy when it came to courting controversy.
His views on immigration, women, and homosexuality undoubtedly raised many eyebrows, with many of his remarks regarded as entirely out of place in modern Britain. As a science communicator however, there is no doubt that he did a huge service to astronomy, inspiring generations of youngsters with an interest in the night sky. The sentiment tweeted by Professor Brian Cox, television presenter and physicist, will undoubtedly be echoed by many who remember his long and extensive broadcasting and publishing career: “Very sad news about Sir Patrick. Helped inspire my love of astronomy. I will miss him!"
The self-taught astronomer gained interest in the subject aged just six, after picking up a book on the solar system from his mother’s library.
“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,” he later remembered.
At the age of 11, he became the youngest ever member of the British Astronomical Association. At 13, he delivered his first paper to the members, speaking about Mare Crisium, a crater on the moon. 50 years later, he was the Association’s President.
After a childhood plagued with illness, and having been largely home-schooled, Sir Patrick had been due to study at Cambridge University. This never came to pass however, as World War II broke out, when he lied about his age to join up to the RAF , in which he served as a navigator in the Bomber Command. (More recently, rumours have suggested that he was actually involved in intelligence work, following his comments about involvement in Norway during the war.) Although he survived, his fiancée Lorna was killed when the ambulance she was driving was hit in an air raid. Broken-hearted, Sir Patrick never married.
In an interview with the Daily Mail in 2011, Sir Patrick described his loss:
“It’s a long time back now. She was in London when one of Hitler’s bombs fell. That was it for me. It went too deep. There couldn’t be anybody else. She wasn’t there and there was no one else for me, so you make the best of a bad job.”
And so, he dedicated himself to studying the stars, and became a respected authority in the field. The Sky at Night began in 1957, and has been broadcast every month for 55 years, making it the longest-running series with the same presenter. Sir Patrick only ever missed one episode.
His enormous success despite his amateur status, left him vulnerable to jealous critics. His Daily Telegraph obituary reports that a jealous member of the Royal Society once declared the Society would never admit him – not because of his lack of a degree but “because he makes science popular”. This proved not to be the case however, and the BBC reports that Sir Patrick was moved to tears, when he was awarded the Society’s Honorary Fellowship, in 2001.
Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse described Sir Patrick as one of the greatest science communicators of our time, and said his own decision to become a scientist was influenced by Sir Patrick. He described how as a child he attended one of his astronomy talks.
"I literally sat at his feet, listening to every word, and there were a lot of them," he told BBC News. "It was a wonderful experience for me."
Queen-guitarist-turned-astrophysicist Brian May, who co-authored a book on the history of the universe with Moore, also described him as the “father of astronomy”, and spoke to the BBC about the passion and enthusiasm Moore showed for the subject.
"He lived and breathed his subject, and he shared it with everyone, he absolutely lived to share his knowledge, his wealth and his time. The most generous man I've ever met I would say."
Many have reflected that Sir Patrick showed an extraordinary willingness to help other keen astronomers, and as well as his work in broadcasting and literature, he travelled widely to address amateur groups, and answer individual requests for help or advice in person. His more caring side was also perhaps reflected in the deep affection he has shown for several adopted cats – including the most recent, Ptolemy, who was at his side when he died.
Having worn a monocle and smoked a pipe since the age of 16, Sir Patrick was well known for his old-fashioned outlook on life, as well as an old-fashioned appearance. He was still typing on a 1908 typewriter, well in to the computer age, and was an outspoken critic of metrification.
He was also well known for an unrepentant refusal to be politically correct, and his ardent dislike of bureaucrats and politicians – although he briefly dabbled, with a stint in the Monster Raving Loony Party, as Minister for Extra-Terrestrial Affairs.
In spite of all this, he made several serious contributions to space studies. In 1959, he helped the Russians update their charts of the Moon after they photographed its ‘dark side’. After this, he was invited to become a member of the Soviet Astronomical Society, and also helped map the Moon for the American Apollo mission.
A familiar face in Britain by the sixties, he did the live BBC commentary when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon in 1969, and for the 1999 total eclipse of the Sun. British Science Association Chief Executive, Sir Roland Jackson, who was present with him at St Anthony’s Head, reflects how terribly disappointed Sir Patrick was when it was obscured by heavy cloud.
He received many honours, including his Knighthood in 2001 for 'services to the popularisation of science, and broadcasting' and a BAFTA for services to television.
After a short illness, Sir Patrick died peacefully at home. Showing a final streak of humour, reported in the Daily Mail obituary, he is rumoured to have scribed on his organ donor card ‘You can have the lot.’
A complex and eccentric character, there is no doubt that Sir Patrick should be remembered for his contribution to science communication, as much as his unflinching, frank expression of his views.