On the 9th December 2012, famous astronomer Sir Patrick Moore passed away at age 89. This was a man who was close to the heart of many an amateur astronomer, thanks to the fact that he presented the BBC’s influential programme The Sky at Night for over 50 years, but he was also a man with a varied and sometimes tragic life.
Sir Patrick was born in Middlesex, England, in 1923. His father was a decorated military man; his mother a singer and artist. Thanks to a heart condition, Sir Patrick was unable to attend school with the other boys of his age and so instead was tutored at home. At the age of 6, he was given a copy of the GF Chambers book, The Story of the Solar System, and a lifelong obsession with astronomy was begun. Unfortunately, though he was soon publishing papers on an amateur basis with the assistance of his three-inch telescope, he would not be heading straight into a career as a gifted observer of the sky.
Instead, the outbreak of World War II led the teenager to lie about his age and enlist in the Royal Air Force at 16. His potential was recognised, and he was soon promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. During his time in the RAF, Sir Patrick had many experiences which would be crucial in forming the man he was to become. Some of these were positive – for example, he met Albert Einstein and Orville Wright in New York whilst on leave from his flight training in Canada. Others, however, were darker. Sir Patrick’s bitter hatred of war can be traced back to two wartime events. The first, a visit to the German concentration camp at Dachau, provided a graphic first-hand experience of its horrors. The second factor hit much closer to home – his fiancée, Lorna, was struck and killed by a German bomb whilst driving an ambulance. Sir Patrick clung to Lorna’s memory, stating that he could never have married anybody else, and infamously exclaimed as recently as last year that ‘the only good Kraut is a dead Kraut’.
After the war was over, he refused a grant to study at the prestigious Cambridge University, preferring to ‘stand on [his] own two feet’. Instead, he began teaching at prep schools and released his first book, Guide to the Moon. An appearance on a television programme discussing UFO sighting catapulted him into his most famous role as presenter of The Sky at Night, inspiring many young students to pay more attention during their physics lessons. A relatively brief stint as head of an observatory in Northern Ireland was cut short due to the astronomer’s unwillingness to become involved in The Troubles. Sir Patrick carried on presenting his programme throughout old age, production being moved to his home when his crippling arthritis prevented him from travelling to the studio.
Sir Patrick was very politically active, especially in later life. His profoundly Eurosceptic and nationalistic views were undoubtedly influenced by his hatred of Germany and disdain for other European countries, which he believed were either against England during the war or failed to do enough to help it. This perspective encouraged him to become a patron of the UK Independence Party.
Aside from astronomy, which Sir Patrick insisted was only a hobby, his passions included music, cricket, cats, and amateur dramatics. He died in his home, Farthings, in Sussex.
About the author: Thomas Jones is a blogger and lover of all things scientific, though he admits he should have paid more attention in physics lessons.