Monday, 10 December 2012

Amateur astronomy loses a hero: the death of Sir Patrick Moore

In front of me is a paperback that I bought in the early 1980s, and still dip into, because it's an amusing read. It's called A Directory of Discarded Ideas, by John Grant (the edition published by Corgi in 1983, ISBN 0-552-99013-2). It's a book that discusses a multitude of daft (and not so daft) theories about life, the universe, and the cosmic forces that pseudo-scientists have thought they could tap into. Patrick Moore (not yet Sir Patrick) is mentioned several times as an investigator of some of these theories, and a gentle debunker of them.

In 1976 Patrick Moore published a book titled Can You Speak Venusian? which I once read. It was much in the same vein as John Grant's Directory, and came out when a lot of ordinary people were still inclined to take alternative cosmologists and theorists like Immanuel Velikovsky, W R Drake, and Erich von Däniken quite seriously. But he didn't confine his attention to their kind of revelations. For instance, the Directory mentions George King, self-appointed representative of the Cosmic Masters. Mr King went on to meet one of these very Masters, a person named Aetherius, who lived on Venus. And after that, several other august entities. Mr King held public meetings, and attracted followers who became known as the Aetherians. Mr King, the Aetherians, and the Cosmic Masters protected planet Earth from Evil Forces, and claimed to have done marvellous work in saving us all from a variety of terrifying fates.

Such successes were recounted in the Aetherian Society's journal, Cosmic Voice. But in 1957, a series of articles appeared in the journal, apparently written by eminent scientists and thinkers from all over the world. They had odd names, but of course that was only to be expected of foreign contributors. Names like Egon Spünraas, Walter Wumpe, Dominic Fidler, N Ormuss, L Pullar, R T Fischall, E Ratic, Dr Hotère, Dr Lupi, and Dr Waathervan. The Directory relates that 'when it was rather publicly pointed out to King, in the newspaper Psychic Weekly, that he was perhaps the victim of an L Pullar, he furiously cracked down on such spurious contributions to knowledge - accusing the British astronomer Patrick Moore, among others, of being the perpetrator of the hoax.' Really! Well I never. I mean, would Patrick Moore, admittedly a playful thirtysomething at the time, but already a serious force in his field, have poked so much wicked fun at Mr King? Nothing was ever proved, nor can be now. But I like to think he done it, all right, m'lud.

Sir Patrick Moore lived a very long life, and his passion was astronomy, but he was skilled in many other things, including music, and as time went on he developed a distinct persona that was delightfully at odds with cool, and yet somehow cutting-edge in the scientific sense. He wore a trademark monocle. He was a character, a national institution, and Selsey's most famous resident. He was venerated by generation after generation of amateur astronomers. Right up till 2012 he appeared on The Sky at Night, the TV series he hosted for decades. The Wikipedia article on him is a comprehensive summary of his life and achievements (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Moore).

I never met him, and I rather think I would not have shared some of views. But he had his reasons for those views. His girlfriend was killed in the last War, in a German bombing raid, and he found the loss irreplaceable, so that he never married. But then, he filled the space in his life with so much else. In many ways he was like my Dad - or was it that Dad to some extent was very like him? Dad also had a monocle that he kept in a drawer, and in more socially active days would wear at club dinners, as part of his get-up. Mum thought the monocle was ridiculous, and eventually laughed Dad out of wearing it. But many a time I saw Dad feign surprise, so that he could open his eyes wide, and let the monocle drop out of his eye socket in the proper manner. Sometimes into his soup. Most amusing! My brother and myself, if there, would suppress giggles - and wish we could get away with wearing one, and pulling off a fun wheeze like that. I'm sure that Sir Patrick liked to splash soup and gravy around just the same.

Here he is on The Sky at Night last June, when already aged 89. I was watching, and happened to take a few shots with the Leica off the TV screen:


Note the monocle, the tie, and the wayward collar. He does remind me of Dad. Sir Patrick was by then suffering from severe arthritis (as Dad had suffered), with a bad back on top of that. I wonder if he knew that he'd not see the year out.

I'll stop there, if you don't mind. I feel really quite sad about his departure.

1 comment:

  1. He will be missed. I loved the fact that he did not always agree with some of the theories put forward by his contemporaries and telling them 'Well we just don't know yet'. I have many of his books at home being a lover of astronomy myself.

    Shirley Anne x

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