Tributes paid to eccentric stargazer Moore after his death at 89

Tributes paid to eccentric stargazer Moore after his death at 89
Patrick Moore with Brian May as he hosts a reception at the BBC in April this year. Picture: PA

British astronomer Patrick Moore died today aged 89, a group of his friends and staff said.

The broadcaster “passed away peacefully at 12.25pm this afternoon”, at his home in Selsey, West Sussex, they said in a statement.

It added: “After a short spell in hospital last week, it was determined that no further treatment would benefit him, and it was his wish to spend his last days in his own home, Farthings, where he today passed on, in the company of close friends and carers and his cat Ptolemy.”

TV personalities come and go, but Moore, famous for his monocle, outlasted all UK rivals.

For more than 40 years, he presented BBC TV’s popular The Sky At Night programme, a wonderland of information for the expert, the novice and his huge army of fans who had no particular scientific bent at all.

It became the longest running television series with the same presenter.

His knowledge of outer space was prodigious and he possessed a unique ability to transmit that knowledge in a comprehensible and attractive form to the layman.

Moore, despite an occasional irascible nature and a tendency towards eccentricity, was a kindly man and modest with it. Once he said he would like to be remembered as an amateur astronomer who played cricket and the xylophone.

Patrick Caldwell Moore was born on March 4, 1923. He was educated privately, because of illness.

His interest in astronomy was fired at the age of six when he read a book called Guide To The Solar System, published in 1898. “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.”

At the age of eight he was given a 1908 model Woodstock typewriter on which all of his 170 books were written. He claimed to be able to type at 90 words a minute – using only two fingers.

Then, when he was 11, he was nominated as a member of the British Astronomical Association – the youngest ever member. He published his first paper, on small craters in the Mare Crisium on the Moon at the age of 13 – exactly 50 years before he was to be president of the association.

The paper was accepted and he was asked to present it. “I wrote back saying, ’Thank you for your letter. I’d be honoured but you’ve got to understand I’m only 13’. They replied: ’We don’t see what that’s got to do with it’.”

As a young man Moore knew Albert Einstein. He said of him: “He was an interesting man: totally unworldly. He was a violin player and I accompanied him playing Saint-Saens’s ’Swan’. I wish I had a tape of it.”

He served with the Royal Air Force from 1940 to 1945, as a navigator in Bomber Command. To get into the armed forces at only 16 he had to lie about his age and fake his medical.

The girl he was to marry was killed during the war in an air raid. He said since: “My whole life ended in one day. These things happen. You accept them. As far as I was concerned, that was that. It’s the reason I have never married, but I don’t like living alone.”

Nevertheless he did live alone for most of his life at his beloved Selsey in Sussex.

His career as an astronomer blossomed. Whereas hardly anybody could name the Astronomer Royal, Moore became a household name. Within the span of half a century he observed what must be the most spectacular period in the history of any science.

He always said that the Cold War never affected astronomers. “The International Astronomical Union is the only organisation I know that always has been totally international.

“At the very height of the Cold War, at one stage the president was a Russian, the vice-president was American. In space research the Cold War went on. In pure astronomy it didn’t.”

Moore’s years on television began while space travel was “bunk” in the unguarded words of Britain’s then Astronomer Royal in 1956.

But within six months Sputnik I was beeping in the heavens. Within three years men were in space and within 12 years they were on the Moon.

When Moore began broadcasting, cosmologists contemplated an eternal universe and continuous creation and birth by the Big Bang as equally unprovable.

“We are very strong on detail, very weak on fundamentals,” Moore used to say. “No one has ever yet discussed the origin of the universe.”

But his popularity as an astronomer incurred the jealousy of those who regarded themselves as superior to him.

One Fellow of the Royal Society once said: “We would never elect Patrick Moore as a Fellow, not even for his achievement in science education.” Was this, the Fellow was asked, because he had no degree? “No,” came the reply, “because he makes science popular.”

Nevertheless, his scholarship was highly respected. He would take minute pains to double and treble-check his facts. His 1970 book, The Atlas Of The Universe, despite all its magnificent and bold illustrations of planets and star clusters, is a masterpiece of cautious accuracy.

One of his great triumphs was to explain, on TV, the existence of a giant black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. Various scientists tried to do it, unsuccessfully, in a variety of weird and wonderful ways.

Moore had a map of the Milky Way drawn on the floor of the studio. He walked towards the centre and then, by some feat of conjuring, disappeared.

One of his most frustrating moments as a broadcaster was when he said: “We’ll hear the voices of the first men round the Moon in 20 seconds. This is one of the great moments in human history. And at that moment they switched over to Jackanory.”

But he remained loyal to the BBC throughout, even though he had tempting offers from others. “I have no contract with the BBC at all, but I do have a gentleman’s agreement, which is totally unbreakable,” he once said.

Moore passionately wanted to go into space himself. “But I’m the wrong age, the wrong nationality and the wrong medical grade. Besides,” he joked, “it would need a very massive rocket to launch me.”

He used to gaze at the stars and say: “We are a very, very small speck in the universe, about as important as a single ant in the whole of the world.”

He was also an accomplished player of the xylophone and composed music for this instrument. He was also a zestful cricketer, who remained a useful and occasionally dangerous medium-pace bowler well beyond his youth.

He once described his idea of perfect happiness as “bowling to a nervous batsman on a sticky wicket”.

Moore was also an ardent fan of Margaret Thatcher whom he once described as the living woman he most admired. He also claimed to have been bored by anti-South African propaganda.

In 2000 he suffered a paralysis in his right hand which considerably restricted his activities as a musician and a writer. He was also forced to cancel lectures.

This disability even prevented him from opening the letter telling him he was being considered for a knighthood.

The paralysis occurred just after he had written a wedding march for a friend. “I wrote it down, then played it to make sure I’d done it correctly, then closed the piano. It was quite uncanny actually. That was the last time I could play the piano. The next morning I couldn’t move my hand.”

Moore became an OBE in 1968 and a CBE in 1988. He was knighted in the 2001 New Year list “for services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting”, an honour which earned him congratulations from around the world.

In July, 2004, at the age of 81, Moore by his own admission “nearly died” after a severe bout of food poisoning caused, he believed, by a duck’s egg he had eaten.

He battled on and in 2007 presented a special 50th anniversary episode of the show from his back garden with special guests including Queen guitarist Brian May.

Five years on he hit the headlines again when in an interview to mark the show’s 55th anniversary he warned of the danger of another world war and declared “the only good Kraut is a dead Kraut”.

Tributes

Tributes poured in immediately for the eccentric stargazer.

Queen guitarist Brian May, who holds a PhD in astrophysics, led the chorus of praise, saying the world had “lost a priceless treasure that can never be replaced” and he had lost a “dear friend and kind of father figure”.

May said in a statement: “Patrick was the last of a lost generation, a true gentleman, the most generous in nature that I ever knew, and an inspiration to thousands in his personal life, and to millions through his 50 years of unique broadcasting.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Patrick, in his tireless and ebullient communication of the magic of astronomy, inspired every British astronomer, amateur and professional, for half a century.

“Patrick will be mourned by the many to whom he was a caring uncle, and by all who loved the delightful wit and clarity of his writings, or enjoyed his fearlessly eccentric persona in public life,” he added.

“Patrick is irreplaceable. There will never be another Patrick Moore. But we were lucky enough to get one.”

Professor Brian Cox, who presents a number of science programmes for the BBC, said he would miss Moore.

Former BBC science correspondent and fellow astronomer Dr David Whitehouse told Sky News that Moore had “loved astronomy more than he loved himself”.

“He was passionate, he was dedicated and had an unselfish love of astronomy and he passed that on to everybody who knew him and he came across.

“He was a difficult person personally to deal with on many occasions, he was sometimes awkward, truculent, stubborn but that was Patrick, that was part of his remarkable personality which so many people came to enjoy and love.

“I think many people realised he was a unique person.

“He was not a professionally trained astronomer and yet did professional quality work, particularly when it came to mapping the Moon in the 1950s – I think every astronomer in the world owes something to Patrick Moore.”

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