By David Rothery
There’s a Patrick Moore-sized hole in the world of astronomy and planetary science that is unlikely ever to be exactly filled. He presented “The Sky at Night,” a monthly BBC TV astronomy programme, from 1957 until his death. This brought him celebrity, and the books that he wrote for the amateur enthusiast were bought or borrowed in vast numbers from public libraries for half a century — including by myself as a schoolboy. Patrick was the mainstay of the BBC’s Apollo Moon-landing coverage that those of us of a certain age will never forget, and there can be few amateur or professional astronomers who grew up in the UK without having been influenced by him. Tributes posted on the Internet show that he was known and admired beyond these shores too. They also attest to Patrick’s extraordinary generosity, exemplified by numerous accounts of how he replied to letters from strangers (of whom in the early 1970s I was one) or took time to chat after his lectures.
Patrick served with distinction and under age as a navigator with Bomber Command during the war. I believe (on the basis of dark hints made during late night conversations) that he also spent time on special operations in occupied Poland, where his youth and assumed Irish identity afforded him a plausible (but surely high-risk) cover story. An encounter with what he referred to as ‘a working concentration camp’ led to his lifelong professed dislike of Germans (“apart from Werner von Braun, the only good German I ever met”).
After the war, Patrick became a school teacher and also very active in the British Astronomical Association notably in its lunar section on account of his painstaking and careful observations of the Moon, some of which were to prove useful for both the American and Soviet lunar missions. He became a friend of the science fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke, with whom he shared the authorship of Asteroid (2005) sold in aid of Sri Lankan tsunami relief.
I first met Patrick when we were speakers at a meeting to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of Neptune, so that must have been 1996. He spoke about Neptune itself, and I about its main satellite Triton. Afterwards he was kind enough to remark that he had read my book (Satellites of the Outer Planets). Our first joint TV appearance was “Live from Mars,” an Open University TV programme on a Saturday morning in 1997 when NASA’s Mars Pathfinder landed, allowing us to broadcast the first new pictures from the surface of Mars for nearly 20 years. I became an occasional guest on “The Sky at Night” more recently, which led to a friendship, as with so many of his guests. The programme was usually recorded at Patrick’s home in Selsey, and Patrick delighted to put his guests up overnight, rather than send them to a nearby hotel. That was a cue for an impressively-laden supper table, copious quantities of lubricant, and entertaining — if sometimes outrageous — conversation. Patrick had a wry sense of humour, and would self-parody his supposed extreme views. However, I think he was being serious when, or several occasions, he styled a certain recent US President as “a dangerous lunatic”.
I witnessed Patrick’s mobility decline from walking sticks, to zimmer frame, to wheelchair. His once famously rapid speech became slurry, but his mind and monocle-assisted eyesight stayed sharp. Co-presenters assumed larger and large roles on “The Sky at Night,” but Patrick was always there as the pivotal host. I last saw him less than three weeks before his death, when I guested on what was to prove his last “Sky at Night.” He was drowsy at first, but his intellect soon kicked in. He steered our discussion as ably as of old, and we were treated to a vintage Patrick moment of scepticism “When someone gives me a cupful of lunar water, then I’ll admit I was wrong.”
I lingered afterwards for a chat — inevitably partly about cats. Noticing the time, Patrick ordered a gin and tonic for each of us, and was soon involved in good-natured banter with his carer about why she would not let him have a second. He encouraged me to write a book about Mercury, and kindly agreed to write the foreword if I did. That’s an offer that I shall no longer be able to take him up on, but wherever you are, Patrick, I hope someone’s brought you that cupful of lunar water by now.
4 March 1923 – 9 December 2012
David Rothery is a Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the Open University UK, where he chairs a course on planetary science and the search for life. He is the author of Planets: A Very Short Introduction.
Image credit: Image is the personal property of David Rothery. Used with permission. Do not reproduce without explicit permission of David Rothery.