Skip navigation

Friday January 11, 2013

Self-described 'amateur' astronomer inspired millions through books and TV

He was host of BBC's The Sky at Night, the world's longest-running TV series with the same presenter

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore (Patrick Moore for most purposes), self-taught astronomer, prolific author, record-setting broadcaster and eminently recognizable character, died in Selsey, West Sussex, England, on Dec. 9.

He was the author of more than 70 books, extending to hundreds of editions, and the enthusiastic host of The Sky at Night, the world's longest-running TV series with the same presenter. With his monocle, bushy raised eyebrows, hulking 6-foot-3 frame, slightly unkempt appearance and rapid-fire delivery, he was easily recognized, and easily caricatured.

In the words of his collaborator and friend Queen guitarist (and astrophysicist) Brian May, "There will never be another Patrick Moore. But we were lucky enough to get one."

Moore was born in Pinner, Middlesex, on March 4, 1923, the son of Captain Charles Caldwell-Moore M.C. and Gertrude, a trained singer and artist, but grew up in East Grinstead. His health was poor, and he was schooled by private tutors. At 16, on the advice of an optician (or his interpretation of it), he began wearing a monocle and, at 19, wore a full set of dentures.

Encouraged by his mother, he developed an interest in astronomy at 6, joined the venerable British Astronomical Association at 11, wrote his first scientific article (about the moon) at 13, and was directing a small observatory in his hometown at 14. Two years later, after "fiddling" (his word) about his age and fitness, he joined the RAF and became a navigator, rising to the rank of flight lieutenant. Sadly, his fiancée Lorna, a nurse, was killed in London in 1943 when a bomb hit her ambulance. He never forgave the Germans. And he never married: "There was no one else for me."

After the war, he declined a government grant - "It went against the grain" - to study at Cambridge, and became a teacher. A few years later, he decided to become a full-time writer and broadcaster; his aim was to spread interest in astronomy, and the night sky. He was director of the Armagh Planetarium from 1965 to 1968, but decided to return to the stability and comfort of his beloved England (he always identified with England, rather that with Britain or the U.K.).

His first book was A Guide to the Moon (1953). In 1957, six months before Sputnik, he hosted the first (of 720) episode of The Sky at Night on BBC. He subsequently appeared in countless other BBC programs, ranging from game shows (he was The GamesMaster for 126 episodes of the program of that name), to reality shows (It's A Knockout), to humour (The Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise ) - even Doctor Who, appearing as himself.

Moore's career coincided with the birth and growth of the space age. His primary research interest was the moon and planets, and these were accessible to space exploration. His early telescopic observations and maps of the moon contributed to U.S. and USSR lunar exploration - an indication of how rapidly technology was changing. The moon and planets were also visible to the general public, even in the climatically underprivileged U.K. He was a frequent broadcaster and commentator on space activities, and he liked to point out that he had personally met Orville Wright (while on leave in New York during Second World War training in Canada), Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong.

The 1950s also marked the beginning of the golden age of astronomy, which continues today - marked by discoveries such as neutron stars and black holes, the leftover radiation from the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy, and planets around other stars. People of all ages embraced these topics, and also the many connections between astronomy and history, philosophy and culture.

Sadly, they also embraced pseudoscientific topics such as astrology, space aliens, young-Earth creationism and more recently the Mayan apocalypse. Moore went to great lengths to rebut these misinformed ideas. I remember him going head to head on TV with Erich von Daniken, who wrote breathless pseudoscientific accounts of "ancient astronauts." Von Daniken was slick; Moore was his usual slightly unkempt self. But his quick wit and intellect prevailed.

Moore's books included atlases, almanacs (he edited 50 editions of Patrick Moore's Yearbook of Astronomy), reference and data books, fiction (including science fiction), humour, books for children and youth, biography and history - but the moon, planets and telescopes were his favourite topics. At least one book was a translation from the French, a language in which he was fluent. Most of the books were pecked out on a 1908 Woodstock manual typewriter. They were clear, comprehensive and straightforward. Perhaps because they lacked the glitz and gloss expected of "popular" science books in North America, Moore was not as well-known here, except by the professional and amateur astronomical communities. In many ways, he was the antithesis of Carl Sagan, and certainly of Stephen Hawking.

Moore's audiences included young people, amateur astronomers and the general public. Astronomy (along with dinosaurs) has always been appealing to young people, and many a scientist has been turned on by seeing the moon or a planet through a telescope.

He was modest and accessible, and willingly responded to letters, phone calls and visits. Amateur astronomers are a special breed. Some are "armchair amateurs," content to read books or watch TV programs such as Moore's. Others are "recreational sky watchers" who would appreciate Moore's writing philosophy: Tell what to look for, and how and where to look. Other amateurs make outstanding contributions to public education; Moore, as a self-taught "amateur" was an inspiration to them. During International Year of Astronomy 2009, for instance, they shared their enthusiasm with hundreds of thousands of people in Canada alone.

Moore's views on politics and culture were generally right-wing, occasionally politically incorrect (he was an admitted dinosaur as far as the roles of women were concerned), but always firmly held and bluntly stated. He was briefly chairman of the anti-immigration United Country Party, later a member of the UK Independence Party and, at one time, finance adviser for the Official Monster Raving Lunatic Party. He had a low opinion of war, politicians, bureaucrats, European unity and the metric system. He was an opponent of fox hunting and blood sports, and was particularly fond of cats ("a catless house is a soulless house.")

Outside of astronomy, he was a skilled amateur cricketer, golfer, chess player, actor and piano and xylophone player - skills which he happily displayed on TV. He wrote more than 100 pieces of music, some of which were recorded. He once performed a duet, for piano and violin, with Albert Einstein.

Moore was a former president of the British Astronomical Association, and co-founder and former president of the Society for Popular Astronomy. His honours and awards were many and diverse: He was a fellow of the (professional) Royal Astronomical Society and an honorary fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of London. He was an officer of the Order of the British Empire, later upgraded to commander, and to full knighthood. The asteroid Moore is named in his honour. He received (from Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin) a BAFTA award for his services to television. He was an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Moore was apparently not wealthy; he spent his money on worthy causes and people, and on telescopes and instruments for his four backyard observatories. He had lived in his 16th-century West Sussex home "Farthings" since 1968, sharing it with his mother, Gertrude - whom he adored - until her death in 1981. In 2008, Queen guitarist Brian May purchased Farthings and rented it back to him for one peppercorn, to provide Moore with financial security in his final years. Farthings was full of instruments, books and letters. Its future is uncertain, but Moore's admirers hope that it can be maintained as a centre for education in astronomy.

Moore's health declined in recent years, and he was increasingly confined to his home, to a wheelchair, and eventually to his bedroom. But he continued to write, and to broadcast, right to the end; episode 720 of The Sky at Night was broadcast on the evening of his death. Shortly before his death, he was hospitalized with an infection, and the prognosis was not good. He chose to spend his last days at home, with his close friends, caregivers and his beloved cat Ptolemy.

John Percy is professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto.

Back to top