Sir Patrick Moore passed away today, aged 89. Through his many, many books, and TV programmes like The Sky at Night, he became Britain’s foremost populariser of astronomy. It’s safe to say he’s inspired several generations of scientists, showing us the poignant beauty of the heavens and incredible excitement of space exploration, all in his own, unique way.
I have a particularly fond memory of him. When I was quite young, probably around 8 years old, my dad and uncle took me to see Patrick give a lecture at the Victoria Hall in Stoke. I seem to remember that much of it was about Mars, and how astronomers past had mistakenly seen canals and other marks of civilisation on its surface. I still have a copy of a little red book of his, “Into Space!”, lying around somewhere at home, that we bought on the night. We also took my copy of Philip’s Atlas of the Universe (another of his), which he graciously signed for me after the lecture. I can’t remember what he said to me, other than that he’d sprained his wrist, so could only manage to scrawl his initials on the first page! I recall being slightly put out by this, for some reason – perhaps because it looked like someone had randomly scrawled on the book, thus defacing it. (Anyone who knows me will have some appreciation of how cardinal a sin the defacement of a book, however slight, is in my eyes.)
Meeting Patrick was one of a number of important events in my development that happened at around the same time. My dad bought me a little black Tasco refractor, and managed to get a stunning view of Jupiter out of it, one that I couldn’t reproduce myself for many years. A couple of years earlier, he’d woken me up in the middle of the night, literally carrying me out of bed to see a lunar eclipse. My parents had also been indulging me by buying science books, which I absolutely lapped up. One of these was Patrick’s Atlas of the Universe, the one he signed, which I often dipped into. In 1999, there was also a solar eclipse in Britain, only partial in Stoke but reaching totality in Cornwall, which I remember Patrick doing the commentary for.
These events, along with many others of a similar nature over the years, have shaped me both intellectually and personally. Being an astrophysicist is a big part of who I am, and I’m forever grateful to all of the people like Patrick who set me out on this path all those years ago. I only hope I can repay the debt by inspiring others myself.