It is a year ago today that we lost one of the most enduring, best-loved and eccentric popularisers of science of the television era. Before there was Professor Brian Cox, before the excellent Neil deGrasse Tyson, before Carl Sagan, before the national treasure that is Sir David Attenborough, there was Sir Patrick Moore.
Born in 1923, he developed an interest in astronomy from an early age, joining the British Astronomical Association at the age of eleven and running his first observatory at the age of fourteen. He joined the Royal Air Force at sixteen, having lied about his age, and served as a navigator for Bomber Command. At the age of twenty, he lost his fiancée, a nurse, to a bomb that struck her ambulance. The event affected the young Patrick Moore deeply; having lost the love of his life, he never married.
In 1953, he produced the most comprehensive atlas to date of the surface of the Moon. It is a mark of this achievement that a decade-and-a-half later, that same atlas was used by NASA to plot the Apollo lunar landings, and also informed the lunar probes of the Soviet space programme. In 1957 – the same year the launch of Sputnik announced the beginning of the Space Age – Patrick Moore was asked to present a live astronomy programme on the BBC. The Sky at Night was first broadcast on 24th April that year. Although initially only scheduled for three episodes it was still running over half a century later and Moore was still its host – a record unlikely to be surpassed.
A tireless enthusiast for the science of astronomy, Patrick Moore dutifully replied to every piece of mail he received – much of it from young children he had himself inspired to an interest in the field – typing his letters on the same 1908 Woodstock typewriter he used for all of his manuscripts (much to his publishers’ frustration). It would be an Herculean task to list all of the people he influenced and inspired but it is known that he was responsible for persuading the astrophysicist and world-famous rock star, Brian May, to take his PhD.
Beyond astronomy, Patrick Moore was a writer of children’s science fiction adventures, a keen amateur cricketer, an accomplished pianist and a pop cultural personality in his own right, who never took himself too seriously – as multiple appearances on the likes of The Morecombe & Wise Show and The Goodies amply demonstrated. For all of his ability to laugh at himself and his humility in refusing to accept that viewers tuned in to The Sky at Night for him rather than for the astronomy, it is clear that he was one of the most important figures in British post-war television.
Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore died on this day in 2012. Tonight, before you go to bed, why not pop outside for a few moments and look up, in his memory? I can think of no more fitting tribute.