It was with great sadness that I came to hear of the passing away of Sir Patrick Moore on Sunday afternoon.
To describe Sir Patrick as an inspiration would be a great understatement: he was the Godfather of British Astronomy, introducing people to the wonders above our heads with unwavering dedication and enthusiasm.
He was born in 1923, and educated mostly at home due to issues with his heart. It was there that his passion for astronomy began, as he taught himself everything he could. He began producing maps of the Moon’s surface with his first small telescope, later versions of which would go on to be used by NASA in planning each of the Apollo landings.
In 1957, he presented the first of three monthly programmes entitled ‘The Sky at Night’: a programme commissioned by the BBC to explain the wonders of the Universe to the general public. However discoveries in the world of astronomy did not stop coming, and Moore went on to break a world record for the longest running presenter of a single show as he presented ‘The Sky at Night’ every month for more than 50 years, even up until its most recent episode on 3rd December of this year (available on BBC iPlayer until 15th Dec).
‘The Sky at Night’ was to become one of the defining programmes of British Television, and I challenge anyone to find someone working in the field of astronomy who wasn’t inspired by watching it when they grew up. Over his five decades on screen, Moore covered the launch of Sputnik, the lunar landings (which he helped plan) and even attempted a show on Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. From hardened professionals to enthusiastic amateurs, right down to people who just wondered ‘what the fuss was about’; Moore’s ability to speak with clarity and wit enthralled millions of stargazers and taught Britain how to look up and appreciate what they could see.
And this communication of astronomy did not stop with television: one of the most admirable qualities of Sir Patrick was the effort he went to to personally capture the imaginations of his audience. He went out and did lecture tours, and talked to anyone and everyone who would listen to him (and, when you’re Britain’s most famous astronomer, lots of people do). Countless thousands of youngsters will have received a personal response to fan mail over the years, encouraging them into astronomical careers. Every major scientific figure today can place him somewhere as an inspiration to do what they loved, whether through watching ‘The Sky at Night’ or reading some of the books he wrote (of which there were more than 70).
With Sunday’s news, Twitter became a hotbed of tributes and gratitude. Many famous faces paid their respects to a true gentleman, the eccentric uncle the whole country wished they had.
Professor Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox), Professor of Physics at Manchester University and host of the BBC’s ‘Wonders’ and ‘Stargazing’ series, tweeted: “Very sad news about Sir Patrick. Helped inspire my love of astronomy. I will miss him! Patrick certainly leaves a wonderful legacy though. The generations of astronomers and scientists he introduced to the night sky.”
Jon Culshaw (@jonculshaw), comedian, impressionist and amateur astronomer, tweeted: “Terribly, terribly sad to hear of the passing of Sir Patrick Moore, our Godfather of astronomy, he captured its fascination for all of us.”
Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), a hugely popular American astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, even listed Moore as an inspiration: “The first book on the cosmos I ever read was written by Sir Patrick Moore. May he rest in peace, somewhere in the universe.”
Over the years Sir Patrick Moore has given us so much, literally never ceasing to try and bring the world a little closer to the stars. He has left us one unfinished challenge, a ‘Winter marathon’ of objects visible in the night sky, visible with either the naked eye, a pair of binoculars or a telescope. It includes clusters, constellations, nebulae and galaxies. It can be found here: part one, part two. If it is a clear night, I encourage you all to walk out to West Sands or the sports pitches, where the dark skies are fantastic for viewing some of the incredible things on this list.
We are blessed in St Andrews to have a usable observatory. It has a Facebook page where you can find both a history of the observatory and details of upcoming open nights, if any.
Sir Patrick taught us to look up and be amazed at what we saw. So on the next clear night, as a toast to his memory: why not go out and do just that?