Although best known for his long-running BBC television series, The Sky at Night, Sir Patrick Moore was a dedicated skywatcher whose contributions to amateur astronomy will endure.
There's a new and deep rift in the fabric of astronomy worldwide, as news spreads of the death of Sir Patrick Moore today. He died peacefully at age 89 at his longtime home in Selsey, England.
A statement by his friends and staff reads, in part: "After a short spell in hospital last week, it was determined that no further treatment would benefit him, and it was his wish to spend his last days in his own home, Farthings, where he today passed on, in the company of close friends and caregivers and his cat, Ptolemy.
"Over the past few years, Patrick, an inspiration to generations of astronomers, fought his way back from many serious spells of illness and continued to work and write at a great rate, but this time his body was too weak to overcome the infection which set in a few weeks ago.
"His executors and close friends plan to fulfill his wishes for a quiet ceremony of interment, but a farewell event is planned for what would have been Patrick's 90th birthday in March 2013."
It's hard to fathom the influence that Moore had on the popularization of astronomy across a span of more than 60 years. But his career didn't start that way. Born on March 4, 1923, Moore was interested in astronomy from a very young age. By age 11 he'd gotten his first telescope and had joined the British Astronomical Association. Three years later he made a presentation titled "Small craters in Mare Crisium" at a BAA meeting. Moore served as a navigator for the Royal Air Force during World War II and briefly served as director of Armagh Planetarium in Ireland.
Moore was a prolific writer: he once estimated that, counting different editions and reprints in all languages, his name probably appears on more than 1,000 books. His first effort, Guide to the Moon, appeared in 1952 and demonstrated his keen observing eye. He wrote it — and every other book and his scads of articles afterward — on a 1908 Woodstock typewriter.
It didn't take long for Moore's enthusiasm and expertise to draw wider attention — particularly with the British Broadcasting Company. As Moore recalls in a 2010 article for Astronomy Now magazine, "Television for me began when a science producer read a book of mine and invited me to write and present a programme, The Sky at Night." The BBC show debuted on April 24, 1957, and Moore made his last appearance this past week in an episode about new findings on Mercury and the Moon. With more than 720 episodes spanning 55 years, The Sky at Night stands as the longest-running program featuring the same host in television history.
Legions of amateur astronomers will forever remember (and thank) Moore for creating the Caldwell Catalog — his actual surname was Caldwell-Moore, but he rarely used it "because it takes longer to write and I am naturally lazy," he once noted. Introduced by Sky & Telescope in 1995, the Caldwell Catalog includes 109 splendid celestial sights — among them the Rosette nebula and the Omega Centauri globular cluster, for example — that were never included in Messier's famous list.
Moore's health had declined during the past decade, consequences of arthritis in his hands and the lingering effects of a wartime spinal injury. These infirmities forced him to record his BBC appearances from his home and to share the show's hosting with British astronomer Chris Lintott and others. Early this year, Moore lamented that he could no longer observe through his telescope — nor spend time with his piano or xylophone, both of which he played very well.
I asked present and former S&T editors to share some of their favorite moments with the celebrated British astronomer. Here's a sampling:
Fellow countryman Adrian Ashford recalls meeting Moore during a vacation to Selsey in 1974. "Being a typically gauche 12-year-old, I persuaded my reluctant parents to visit his house, uninvited, early one evening. Sir Patrick was unfailingly gracious and generous of his time, enthusiastically showing us his observatories and giving us the chance to view through his 15-inch Newtonian telescope. My desire to pursue a career in astronomy was kindled that night."
"Will we ever know how many people Patrick Moore turned on to astronomy?" laments former managing editor Timothy Lyster. "Suffice it to say that my own lifelong interest was sparked by The Sky at Night (the theme music is playing as I type, and it's stirring stuff). I signed up for the newsletter — which looked like he'd typed it himself the night before — eagerly awaiting its arrival each month. After college, our paths met again, when I edited the British publication Astronomy Now. One time he came to visit the office, and we took a walk down Uxbridge Road. It was the strangest experience. Everyone stopped and gawked, and for a few fleeting moments I knew what it would be like to be recognized everywhere you go."
Roger Sinnott remembers when Moore visited Sky & Telescope's offices in the mid-1990s. "A group of us were walking from one building to another, and suddenly Patrick darted out into the middle of the road to take our picture — without looking either way for oncoming cars!"
And editor emeritus Rick Fienberg recalls a particularly funny story he was told about Moore that might be apocryphal but seems too far-fetched to be true. "Apparently on one of his many trips, Patrick packed a bottle of wine in his suitcase," Fienberg says. "Thanks to some rough handling of the suitcase, the bottle broke. When Patrick retrieved the suitcase and found it dripping, he sought out a large bowl, then proceeded to wring out his wet clothing over it to collect as much of the wine as he could salvage, which he later drank!"
My most endearing recollection of Moore dates to August 2000, a year before he was knighted, when he and I covered the IAU's General Assembly in Manchester, England. He kept going at the keys of his trusty typewriter, pounding out stories for the meeting's daily digest of stories. We shared a few chuckles — and he ever so briefly dropped the monocled, sternly serious persona seen in virtually every photograph. (Moore's trademark monocle, which he wore since age 16, was not a prop. He had perfect vision in one eye and didn't see the point of wearing a pair of spectacles with a plain lens on one side.)
I think it's a safe bet that Moore kindled a passion for astronomy in untold thousands of amateurs over the years. He will be sorely missed.