By now I’m sure most of the readers of this blog will have heard about the sad, but not totally unexpected death of Sir Patrick Moore. It was a great shame, literally – and this is an over-used phrase, to be sure – the end of an era. And for the past few days the newpapers, websites and TV news have been featuring very touching and very personal tributes from astronomers, both professional and amateur, who were inspired by the great man. I was one of them, of course, and since Sunday, when the news of Sir Patrick’s death broke, I’ve been wondering how I could pay my own tribute to him. I was lucky enough to be asked to go on BBC Radio Cumbria on Sunday evening to speak about him, and that was a lovely way of saying a kind of goodbye and thank you, but obviously I wanted to write something here too. It’s taken me a couple of days to build up to it, but here we are.
Patrick Moore was a great man, a truly great man, far greater than some of the modern breed of high profile internet publishing “celebrity astronomers” who have sourly criticised him since his death can ever HOPE to be. (Terrible, terrible thing, jealousy, don’t you think?) He was – to use another now badly over-used cliche – the People’s Astronomer. Patrick loved the night sky, astronomy and astronomers, young and old, amateur and professional alike. He had no boundaries there. For him, the work of the amateur standing in their frosty garden, peering at the shimmering image of Saturn through their humble 6″ telescope, was of equal importance to the work of a career astronomer sitting in a cosy, heated, air conditioned observatory control room, using a mighty telescope to photograph quasars and objects at the edge of the universe.
Many people, of course, knew Patrick as “the man from The Sky At Night”. That TV programme was broadcast by the BBC for half a century, half a CENTURY, and on it Sir Patrick chronicled the whole of the Space Age. From the launch of Sputnik to the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, he was there, watching and telling everyone about what was happening with his trademark enthusiasm and passion.
Sir Patrick was much more than just a broadcaster, though. He was an accomplished observer, and his observing and drawing skills were respected around the world. He mapped the Moon in such detail that his charts were used by NASA to prepare for the Apollo Moon landings. He discovered my own personal favourite lunar feature, Mare Orientale, a truly enormous impact basin on the lunar farside which we can only glimpse the nearest outer edge of occasionally, when the Moon’s wobble tilts it towards us. I was looking at it the night before Sir Patrick’s death, funnily enough, because we can see it at the moment. I don’t believe in fate, or anything like that, superstitious mumbo jumbo, so I’m sure it was just a coincidence that Sir Patrick’s incredible lunar discovery was visible at the tike of his death. Well, pretty sure…
And he wrote books, too. Not just a couple, but a hundred, or so. Bookshop astronomy and popular science section shelves groan, begging for mercy, under the weight of his books. Every school, every university in the UK must have at least one of his books in its library; every professioanl astronomer and every amateur skywatcher in the UK must either have one or more of his books on their bookshelf, or have read one at some point. Without having to plug them on a blog, or promote them on TV and radio, or Facebook, or Twitter, Sir Patrick sold millions of books which opened up the doors of the universe for millions of people, young and old, and made astronomy accessible to the world. A certain high profile astronomy blogger, who seems to have declared himself the indignant, moral guardian of the online astronomical community, should remember that, and show some respect.
Since his death many people have described how Sir Patrick Moore inspired them and got them started in astronomy. I can’t say that, in all honesty, because I came to Sir Patrick’s writing some time after I had been inspired (by a hefty “Big Book Of Science” type book my mum bought me for Christmas one year. The biology pages were ok, so were the geography pages, but the astronomy section blew me away and I was hooked! After that I raided my school library, devouring every astronomy book or pages in a book I could find, and when I eventually ‘discovered’ Sir Patrick’s work my soul already belonged to the night sky) but as I grew up he was always there, on TV doing The Sky at Night, or on the shelves of my local bookshop, or in the newpapers… just everywhere, loving and living astronomy.
As I grew older, my respect and admiration for Sir Patrick grew and grew, and by the time I met him for the first time, attending an astronomy meeting in Durham, I was in total awe of him. But when I was introduced to him he put me totally at ease, shook my hand warmly, and chatted to me briefly about Mars. I felt like I was talking to a legend. I don’t think I stopped smiling for days.
I met him again under rather different circumstances, when he came to a theater not too far from where I lived, to perform a musical evening with his xylophone. The theatre was packed, and we all waited for the great man to appear on stage. Now, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Sir Patrick wasn’t famous for being one of Britain’s Best Dressed Men. His suits fitted him like Santa’s a sack fits Christmas presents. So when he came on stage there were audible gasps of surprise: he was in a gleaming white tux, with bow tie, hair slicked back, monocle polished, and smart black trousers…
…which ended a couple of inches above his shoes. No one was bothered!
Sir Patrick played the xylophone wonderfully, and his performance was a delight. Predictably, at the interval lots of local reporters rushed to try and grab a few words with the great man before he went back on stage, but he made them all wait. Never one to seek out or court publicity, or celebrity, or fame, it was far more important to him to spend that time assisting a young boy, who had approached him asking for help, with his science homework.
That’s the kind of man he was.
And now he’s gone. Astronomy has lost a champion, many astronomers have lost a good friend, and the world has lost a great communicator.
How the hell do you honour the passing of such a giant?
Well, I went out before dawn today to look at the sky, and watch the universe itself pay a silent but beautiful tribute to him.
Over the past few days there’s been quite a spectacle in the eastern sky before dawn. The planets Mercury, Venus and Saturn have been arranged in a diagonal line, strung out like glittering sequins on a string. The Moon has been drifting towards them for a while, and is now drifting past them, one by one, and each morning the view has been more lovely, more beautiful than the last. Yesterday the Moon was close to Saturn, which looked pretty. But this morning the Moon was going to rise next to far brighter venus, with Mercury and Saturnm shining on either side, so myself and fellow Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal member Carol headed out at 06.30 to a layby just outside town, where we have been watching the show. When we got there it was unbelievably cold, bone marrow-chillingly cold, and every sane person was still tucked up in bed. But we’d made the right decision: the Moon and Venus were already visible, close together in the sky, just clearing the trees…
And after not too long at all they were joined by Mercury too…! You can just see it peeping through the trees on the next pic…
And after that, the view just got better and better. As the trio climbed higher into the sky we took photo after photo after photo, laughing in sheer, frozen delight at how beautiful the scene was…
Slowly but surely the sky brightened, and eventually Saturn and Mercury vanished, leaving the Moon and Venus behind in the dawnlight…
…and by the time I got back home, just before 8am, Venus had fled the sky too, leaving the pale, milky Moon to shine alone. But before I went back indoors I took one last look at the Moon and thought what a magnificent send-off the Universe had given one of its greatest champions, lining up worlds to form a celestial Guard of Honour, and say thank you for all he had done to make the wonders of the cosmos accessible to everyone.
So that’s how I’ll end this post, by saying thank you to the man who helped open the eyes of not one generation but several generations to the beauty of the night sky, and the magnificence of the universe.