Vale Patrick Moore (The Good One)

Patrick Moore died yesterday. That’s Patrick Moore the astronomer and science communicator, not Patrick Moore the liar for hire*.

The astronomer Moore’s politics were not all that much closer to mine than his namesake – he supported UKIP and various anti-immigration groups, and prefigured Alan Jones by saying women were “ruining” the BBC.

Yet in a lot of ways the two Moores could hardly be more different. While the Canadian version will happily sell his views to the highest bidder, the English version was very much a man of integrity, however much one disagrees with him. He was staunch in his opposition to fox hunting, for example, which would have gone down very badly in his social set.

All this however, is quite minor compared to his enormous contribution to astronomy. When I announced an interest in the field as a child I was promptly bombarded with books by relatives who had no idea what else to give me. Almost half of them were by Moore. While I preferred Carl Sagan, Moore was so prolific, and so much more practical, that his works played a huge part in maintaining that interest. The Sky at Night was one of the few highlights of a miserable year in England at 14. His book on end of the world cults should probably have got a reprint when the 2012 fears were at their peak (which interestingly enough came a year or two before 2012 itself). His impact was certainly largest in the UK, but for Australian amateurs he loomed far larger than any local, or for that matter American, figure.

Why does this matter? Well for a start, and perhaps most importantly, Moore gave millions of people great pleasure. Whether they became serious astronomers equipped with telescopes and complex lenses or just felt a little less lost when they looked up at the stars on a night walk, Moore increased the enjoyment people took in the night sky. For most this wasn’t a big part of their lives, but if there was a unit of measurement for happiness, Moore’s cumulative contribution would have been huge.

Secondly, some of the people Moore inspired went on to become professional astronomers. Others planned to go down that path, but ended up in other areas of science. Particularly in his latter years, as fewer and fewer students were choosing to study science this was contribution that counted.

Thirdly, astronomy is one of the few areas where amateurs still make discoveries. It is only in the last two decades that more comets and supernovae have been discovered by professionals than amateurs, and many of those amateurs would never have entered the field without Moore.

Perhaps least importantly, but most interestingly, I think that the love of the sky can feed the love of the Earth. For urban dwellers the astonishing beauty of the stars can be a reason to venture beyond city limits now and then, sometimes discovering value in the ecosystems in the process. A desire to see the sky has driven campaigns to reduce wasteful light pollution, slashing carbon dioxide emissions in the process. By encouraging people to look up, and helping make sense of what they were seeing Moore encouraged that.

Moore was also a loveable eccentric, taking part in April Fools jokes that didn’t rely on humiliating anyone and reportedly holding the record for the worst batting average in English village cricket.

Having lived to 89, and suffered only a short illness at the end, there is more reason to celebrate Moore’s life than mourn his death. But mark it lovers of science certainly should.

The Mare Orientale is one of the Moon's most remarkable features, but is barely visible from Earth. By studying the Moon's edges closely as it turns its face very slightly Moore became one of the first people to observe it.

The Mare Orientale is one of the Moon’s most remarkable features, but is barely visible from Earth. By studying the Moon’s edges closely as it turns its face very slightly Moore became one of the first people to observe it.















* It is truly extraordinary that Wikipedia refers to the Canadian Patrick Moore, a man who has dedicated most of his adult life to the destruction of every healthy ecosystem he has encountered, as an environmentalist, based on his record 30 plus years ago.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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