Sir Patrick Moore - Astronomer, TV Presenter and Author
Created | Updated May 13, 2013
Throughout his distinguished career, Patrick Moore without a doubt did more to raise the profile of astronomy among the British public than any other figure in the scientific world. As the presenter of The Sky at Night on BBC television for over 50 years, he was honoured with an OBE in 1968 and a CBE in 1988. He was the author of over 60 books. In 2001 he was awarded a BAFTA and received a knighthood. Patrick was an instantly recognisable iconic figure: a legend in his own lifetime. He passed away in December 2012.
The Pinner Lad Who Never Went to School
Patrick Alfred Moore was born on 4 March, 1923, in the small (it was then) village of Pinner, Middlesex, England. He was educated at home due to childhood illness which prevented him from attending school. His mother was an enthusiastic astronomer and young Patrick soon developed an avid interest. As soon as he was 17 he enlisted in the RAF. During World War II he was a navigator, completing five years service. Patrick never married; his beloved fiancée, a nurse called Lorna, was killed when a bomb blew up her ambulance in 1943.
Patrick was a member and president of the British Astronomical Association. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, which was founded in 1660.
The Russians and the Moon
Patrick's favourite space body since childhood was the Earth's moon. He mapped it, something which impressed the Russians so much that they treated him as a celebrity. They used his charts to correlate their first pictures of the far (dark) side of the Moon, and made him an Honorary Member of the Astronomical Society of the USSR. They even forgave him the massive faux pas he made while on a Russian visit, when he removed his fur hat and planted it atop what turned out to be a bust of Lenin.
Flying Saucers - or 'How it all Began'
Early in 1957, the BBC scripted a television programme about flying saucers, no doubt inspired by the then-imminent tenth anniversary of the Roswell incident. Desmond Leslie1 was fronting the pro-saucer contingent, but someone was needed from the opposite point of view (who didn't believe in little green men from Mars or any kind of space crockery in general) to provide worthy and lively debate. Leslie knew of a sceptical astronomer who knew his subject well and could also talk the hind legs off a donkey, so suggested his name to the BBC producer, Paul Johnstone. From their first meeting, Johnstone, himself a scientist, was deeply impressed with Patrick Moore. The programme went ahead and it was deemed a success.
In those days there was no pre-recording - everything was live - so participants and presenters of any programme had to be capable of keeping their train of thought on track without 'drying up' or experiencing any kind of camera-shyness. Johnstone, who had been on the lookout for a presenter of a programme about astronomy due to the forthcoming visit of the comet Arend-Roland, knew he had found his man. Patrick was asked to return to the Lime Grove studios for talks. He confessed he had no academic qualifications in astronomy, because what would have been his Cambridge University years had been spent in and out of the various cockpits2 of the planes of the RAF, serving his country like every other young man of his generation.
However, his knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject of astronomy shone through his 'interview' and this and the fact that he had already had a dry run on camera and sailed through that test with flying colours, won him the job. At that time, astronomy was regarded as a subject of interest to eccentric old men enjoying either a lonely existence gazing through a telescope at stars for hours on end, or using it as an excuse to escape the drudgery of domesticity. Also, not a lot of people knew the distinction between astronomy and astrology; the Space Age had not yet begun.
The Sky At Night
The Sky At Night - together with its eccentric and humorous presenter - inspired a generation of astronomers. Just about everybody involved with astronomy started out thanks to Patrick; he's a kind of figurehead for astronomy in this country.
- Royal Astronomical Society spokesman Peter Bond
On 26 April, 1957, Patrick began presenting3 the monthly television series The Sky At Night which was to make him, and his monocle, famous. It had a serious approach, but presented the topic in a way the layman viewer could understand. The 25-minute shows started off being broadcast live, which meant he often had to think on his feet. One guest, a Russian, turned up expecting to be interviewed in his native tongue; the language they ended up chatting in was French.
Whenever Patrick talked about upcoming eclipses of the Sun, he always emphasised the importance of eye safety when viewing our local star. Over the years he travelled to far-flung places to be in place to record the upcoming celestial phenomenon, but the weather didn't always behave. In 1999 Patrick and the camera crew were clouded out in Cornwall, the reported best viewing place, while other parts of the UK got a grandstand view. He was much luckier when he visited Siberia for the 1969 total eclipse.
Betelgeuse and Uranus
One of Patrick's pet hates was when anyone incorrectly pronounced the name of the famous4 star of the constellation of Orion. He liked to mention Betelgeuse a few times a year, just to remind everyone how it's supposed to be pronounced. Remember, it's bet-el-gerz - not 'beetle-juice'.
Patrick got similarly antsy about Uranus. Yes, it's a great schoolboy-type joke that there's a planet named after a hole in your bum but it should be pronounced yur-ah-nus. See? Not 'your-anus' at all.
As with all live programmes, some experiments went disastrously wrong. In November 1833, the Leonids reportedly 'rained down like snowflakes' - approximately 200,000 an hour. The spectacle repeated in 1866, but the expected showers of 1899 and 1933 did not materialise. It was predicted that the 1966 event would be phenomenal, so Patrick encouraged his viewers to take part in a meteor watch in anticipation of a really rich show, meaning they had plenty of data to discuss during the next few programmes.
Eleven thousand viewers duly signed up and received their charts to record the celestial fireworks. They waited and waited, but nothing happened. Many stayed up all night, and several of the most irritated even rang the BBC to check they'd got the correct night. Patrick was baffled, until the following day when reports came in of a spectacular meteor shower (over 100,000 per hour) taking place over much of America and the western hemisphere, some 12 hours after the predicted time. Of course in Britain nobody saw a thing; not only was it lunchtime, but the guinea pigs of the first-ever viewer-participation experiment were on the wrong side of the planet. Meteors? Don't talk to Patrick about meteors!
Patrick was known to devote whole shows to specific subjects like the Christmas Star; examining all the evidence and discussing in detail all the possibilities.
A favourite topic of Patrick's was Halley's Comet, and he never forgot to remind viewers that it is usually only possible to see it once within a lifetime, as its orbit around the Sun takes 75/76 years. However, one of Patrick's favourite authors, Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain (1835 – 1910) was born and died in the years in which Halley's Comet appeared. Patrick achieved his ambition to see the comet in 1986, and if you missed it, the next appearance will be in the summer of 2061.
A programme in 1969 involved an outside broadcast from Much Hoole in Cheshire, the birthplace of Jeremiah Horrocks, the curate who was the first human to record a transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, in 1639. The programme was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1769 transit, which had been the reason for Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti, and on the way back, he had 'discovered' Australia.
Patrick had wanted to travel to Venus Point, Tahiti, where the observations and recordings had taken place two centuries before, but the BBC objected because the trip would cost too much money, and so the recording crew and a disgruntled presenter travelled to Much Hoole. Horrocks' house still stands, and is now home to a doll museum.
Fifteen minutes before the programme was due to air, they realised the record of 'At The Castle Gate' (The Sky At Night theme tune) was missing. Deciding not to panic, they enquired of the locals as to the whereabouts of any musical instruments, as Patrick is a 'more amateur musician than astronomer', and the only instrument available was an ancient harpsichord, obviously dating back to the time of Henry VIII, as Patrick remarked. As the cameras rolled, the programme opened with Patrick playing 'At the Castle Gate' on the harpsichord, then introducing the programme from Much Hoole, telling Jeremiah Horrocks' story, the history of the transits of Venus and the Cook and Australia connection. The viewers were also treated to a tour of Horrocks' church, and a glimpse of a specially-crafted stained glass window honouring him. It was a quite memorable programme with a serendipitous beginning.
The Venus Transit 2004
Patrick was determined to live long enough to witness the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun in June 2004, the first from our perspective in 121½ years. He set up a telescope on a tripod and demonstrated how to view the transit correctly without damaging your eyes. He stayed seated throughout the whole event but his good friend Dr Brian May5 kept him company and they viewed the transit together, another 'live' triumph for The Sky At Night.
In 1965, Patrick was offered and accepted the Directorship of the Armagh Planetarium - this was a professional post, the only one he ever held. Years earlier he had turned down the post of director of the London Planetarium in Marylebone Road. He left Sussex with great regret, and he recounts that the cat never settled in Northern Ireland. During the course of his duties, Patrick visited the planetarium at Jena, in what was then East Germany. Unfortunately stalling his jeep at Checkpoint Charlie in the Berlin Wall, he wasn't happy when his driver door was yanked open and a soldier jabbed him in the ribs with the serious end of a rifle. Managing to find his paperwork before any serious misunderstanding took place, he continued his visit and was impressed with the Jena dome, which he recommended upon his return to Armagh.
Patrick's stint at Armagh Planetarium involved constant commuting by air (he hates airline food because he likes to know what he's eating) each month for filming The Sky At Night and before long the strain began to show. One trip was more aggravating than normal: during a meal he bit an olive, thinking it was a grape, and his top denture snapped in two. Emergency repairs were undertaken and that evening The Sky At Night aired with the presenter attempting to talk through tightly clenched jaws, desperately trying to keep his dentures in place and hoping the viewers could understand him. He finally lost patience with aeroplanes when, after one late take-off, the captain wandered down the aisle apologising to the passengers for the delay due to an engine failing to start. In 1968 Patrick moved all his worldly goods (and the cat) back to Sussex, where he still lives.
Pioneers, Heroes and a Genius
During his colourful life Patrick met pioneers of manned flight and space exploration. He chatted with the first man to fly, Orville Wright, as well as the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Patrick was one of the very few people to have interviewed the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and was on first-name terms with all the Apollo astronauts. He also met rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, who masterminded the V2 missiles and the post-war American space programme. Patrick was a talented musician who wrote operas, orchestral music and plays; and he was delighted to once meet composer Sergei Rachmaninov.
Here Patrick remarks on a never-forgotten meeting with a genius:
I was invited to a science meeting, and to a small reception afterwards...and there was Albert Einstein. He is, without a doubt, worthy to rank with Newton, and I found him to be exactly what I expected; unworldly, communicative and blissfully unaware of his unique status...
During their conversation they discovered a shared love of music and they played a duet together; sadly, this was not recorded for posterity.
Other TV Programmes
Patrick commented live from Alexandra Palace when Apollo 8 launched on 21 December, 1968. When Apollo 11 landed at Tranquillity Base in July 1969, Patrick was on air for the whole of the Armstrong-Aldrin moonwalk, and it was breakfast-time the following day before Patrick was allowed to leave the studio. He kept going with cups of coffee containing a medicinal amount of brandy, provided by floor manager Joan Marsden.
Patrick appeared in the BBC's comedy series The Goodies parodying himself. He acquired another string to his bow when he performed in a song-and-dance act in the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special. In the early 1990s Patrick appeared as the disembodied Games Master in the Channel 4 videogame show GamesMaster.
Patrick and his xylophone appeared on the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. He even appeared on Big Brother: during 2004's voyeuristic fest, Patrick was a mystery voice, identified by a contestant. He also appeared as himself in the radio production of the Quandary Phase of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
On his appearance on Room 101 (on which the guest chooses pet hates to be consigned to a hellish Room 101), Patrick's choices ranged from impenetrable wrapping paper to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Always willing to volunteer for charitable causes, Patrick played the xylophone live on stage, helping to raise money for Children In Need, and at the Royal Variety Performance.
In March 2006, at the age of 83, Patrick was fitted with a pacemaker after suffering heart problems. He continued to present The Sky at Night but his guests visited him in his home and the programme was presented from there. Outside broadcasts were hosted by co-presenter cosmologist Chris Lintott.
Patrick wrote over 60 books on Astronomy, and was the author of the six-book Scott Saunders Space Adventure series.
- The Observer's Book of Astronomy (1962)
- Space in the Sixties (1963)
- The Sun (1968)
- Suns, Myths, and Men (1969)
- Guide to Comets (1977)
- The Scott Saunders Series:
- Spy in Space (1977)
- Planet of Fear (1977)
- The Moon Raiders (1978)
- The Terror Star (1979)
- Killer Comet (1978)
- The Secret of the Black Hole (1980)
- What's New in Space? (1983)
- Astronomers' Stars (1987)
- Astronomy (1988)
- Space Travel for the Beginner (1992)
- The Astronomy of Birr Castle (1992)
- Legends of the Stars (1992)
- Observers Astronomy (1993)
- New Guide To The Planets (1993)
- Starry Sky (1994)
- Philip's Guide to the Night Sky (1995)
- Teach Yourself Astronomy (1995)
- The Observational Amateur Astronomer (1995)
- The Modern Amateur Astronomer (1995)
- The Great Astronomical Revolution (1995)
- Comets and Shooting Stars (1996)
- Exploring the Night Sky with Binoculars (1996)
- The Stars (1996)
- The Planets (1996)
- Small Astronomical Observatories (1996)
- Philip's Guide to Stars and Planets (1997)
- Eyes on the Universe (1997)
- Beginner's Guide to Astronomy (1997)
- The Planet Neptune (1998)
- West Country Eclipse (1998)
- Atlas of the Solar System (1998)
- Atlas of the Universe (1998)
- Astronomy Before the Telescope (1999)
- Countdown! ...or How Nigh Is the End? (1999)
- Patrick Moore on Mars (1999)
- The Wandering Astronomer (1999)
- Philips Atlas of the Universe (1999)
- Stargazing (2000)
- Young Astronomer and His Telescope (2000)
- Patrick Moore on the Moon (2001)
- Astronomy with Small Telescopes (2001)
- The Data Book of Astronomy (2001)
- 80 Not Out (2003) - Patrick's autobiography boasts a host of fascinating anecdotes and reveals the real man behind the character.
Patrick also wrote the hilarious Twitmarsh File and Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them under the pseudonym RT Fishall. He was known to masquerade in correspondence under that name as well.
Patrick received the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1977, and the Klumpke-Roberts Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1978.
When he won a BAFTA Award for services to television, Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, flew over from the United States to present it to him.
Patrick was honoured with an OBE, followed by a CBE in 1988. He was knighted by The Queen in 2001, for services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting.
He is mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest-serving television presenter. Patrick presented the programme every month since it began, with the exception of July 2004, when he was too ill with food poisoning.
Asteroid 2602 Moore is a small main belt asteroid. It was discovered in 1982 by E Bowell, and was named to honour Patrick Moore.
He once swallowed a fly live on air.
He built an observatory in his own back garden in Selsey, Sussex, which was unfortunately destroyed during the great storm of October 1987, but has since been rebuilt.
A famous pipe-smoker, he smoked Three Nuns pipe tobacco, and would have most liked to share a smoke with Edmond Halley, the English astronomer and mathematician. Unfortunately as Halley died in 1742, it was not to be.
Patrick loved the game of cricket and played for the Lord's Taveners.
He suffered from arthritis.
In July 2004 he was named in the Radio Times list of the top 40 most eccentric TV presenters of all time.
His favourite animated series was The Clangers, of course!
He loved cats and was an opponent of fox-hunting.
In a 2005 Doctor Who episode entitled 'Aliens of London', The Doctor's companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) named Patrick Moore as the Earth's premier expert on extra-terrestrial life - much to the disappointment of the Doctor.
Patrick enjoyed hearing from people whom he inspired with his love of astronomy. One of his most famous fans was the Lincolnshire record-breaking astronaut Michael Foale, who described Patrick as 'an inspiration to my generation'. As of 2006 Patrick was still replying to all his fanmail personally, on his still-functioning 1908 typewriter6. He enclosed a signed postcard of himself posing with his own telescope, with his reply.
I do believe that when history is written in the far future - assuming that the Earth is still habitable, and homo sapiens has not wiped itself out, dates such as 1066, 1914 and 1939 will be forgotten, but 4 October, 1957, when Russia's miniature Sputnik 1 ushered in a new era7, will be very well remembered.
- Sir Patrick Moore
Sir Patrick Moore passed away at home in Selsey on 9 December, 2012. He was 89 years old.