His name may not be known to many outside of either the UK or the field of astronomy, but Sir Patrick Moore was one of the all-time greats. His knowledge as an astronomer was prolific, his enthusiasm as a writer / broadcaster infectious, and his reputation as something of a monocle-toting eccentric in the great British tradition of the word, legendary.
A Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Astronomical Society, he was best known for his monthly BBC astronomy programme The Sky at Night, which in April 2012 celebrated 55 years of broadcasting, making it the longest-running television programme with the same broadcaster in history. Through the programme, his also responsible in spurring-on many to develop an interest in astronomy, celebrities included, as well as many to become scientists and astronomers.
His own passion for astronomy started at an early age, and by the age of 11 he was already a member of the British Astronomical Association and by fourteen he was running the local observatory. War interrupted his career – as it did so many – and saw him lie about his age to join the RAF (he was 16 at the time and already wearing his trademark monocle to counter a problem in his right eye), in which he served as a navigator in Bomber Command. After the war, he used his government demob grant to attend Cambridge University, and wrote his first book Guide to the Moon in 1952 using the 1908 typewriter one which he went on to write every one of his subsequent books.
As a BBC presenter, Sir Patrick covered the Apollo missions in the 1960 and 1970s and he was on first-name terms with many of those unique men who first walked on the surface of the Moon.
As well as astronomy – which he pursued as a writer and broadcaster and through his own observatories in the garden of his home – Sir Patrick was a keen cricketer in his younger years, and revelled in his reputation for wearing a monocle and playing the xylophone – both of which he did with great aplomb and both of which tended to turn-up on television when he was being – quite lovingly for the most part, it has to be said – impersonated.
He was truly a British institution.
I was lucky enough to meet Sir Patrick once while in my teens when Dad took Mum and I to a reception in London to mark the 21st Anniversary of Apollo 11. The special guest at the event was Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. The event wasn’t that large, being organised by a society of which Dad is a member, but it still surprised me when Patrick Moore himself (whom I knew more by reputation and the aforementioned impersonations than actually having watched his show) came and talked to me while I was contemplating the buffet laid out.
I remember it being a little awkward, as my knowledge of astronomy and space was limited at best then, and I wasn’t really sure as to how to deal with thing Great Personality From Television (Patrick Moore was always physically imposing, even leaving aside the monocle and tufted eyebrows which always seemed to have a life of their own). I have no idea if he sensed my discomfiture – but I do remember that as we both stepped away from the buffet with loaded plates (most of the food on mine happily suggested by Patrick Moore himself), we were chatting about music and cricket (the latter being a subject of which I knew even less about than astronomy, and which he had just been forced to give up – at the age of 68!).
It is the memory of that time, which now seems to have lasted hours but in truth was perhaps only ten or so minutes in length, which sits most vividly with me now. Sir Patrick Moore, FRS, FRAS, CBE, passed away today. As a result, the sky at night will be just a little bit darker from now on.