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Explorer of the Sky:
Godfather of TV astronomy Patrick Moore
interviewed by Andrew Darlington

"Space is big, really big.
You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.
I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's,
but that's just peanuts to space. Listen..."
- The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

"This is Earth," snaps Patrick Moore abruptly, brandishing his fist. "This is the Sun," - his second fist, a precise inch from the first. "So," he demands, "where is the nearest star?" I'm thinking fast - where? Where - the McDonald's across the road from this theatre? Erm... Leeds City Centre, just beyond the Ring Road? "No - Bognor Regis," he declares triumphantly. "Bognor Regis!"
   Patrick Moore is big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big he is. When he heaves down across the table from me it's with all the grace of a Deep Impact Armageddon asteroid impact. And he's not only squeezed into the confines of the chair, he's overflowing it. Patrick Moore creates a major blip on the spacetime continuum just by being here. He has the mass and bulk of a minor planet. There are undisciplined sprouts of white hair tufting like the orbital paths of uncharted comet tails around his head. And the distinctive monocle screwed into his left eye gives him the appearance of an eccentric mad Teutonic rocket scientist from some old movie. Even stooped he's a towering frown of furrow and follicle.
   Tonight he's here in Bradford. And the St George's Hall is damn near full. It's difficult to draw firm conclusions or make generalisations about his audience, but chances are that pretty much every street in every town has its secret Curly Watts. You know, the Coronation Street geek with the telescope in his attic? They're seldom visible. But statistically, city-by-city, that's a hell of a lot of people - a sizeable subculture. To which this massive presence exerts the gravitational attraction of a quasar. But then who amongst us has not, at some time (be honest), gazed up into that vast starry firmament at midnight and asked those timelessly profound questions about life, the universe and everything? Where does it all end? What is the meaning of it all? And where's Captain Kirk?    There have been other pop astronomers. Heather Cooper, the late Carl Sagan. They had bigger budgets and more lavish special effects than the occasionally shambolic and frequently lo-fi The Sky at Night. Sure, things have improved. But until relatively recently the late night programme was know - for its engagingly amateurish reliance on Patrick's latest pencil sketches of planet Mars as viewed through his own twelve-and-a-half inch reflector, and planetary alignments replicated with golf balls and selections of appropriately sized fruit. Yet such a strategy perversely succeeds in conveying a hands-on touchy-feely reality - an accessibility denied to more ambitious presenters. Patrick Moore may be larger than life. He even has an asteroid - Minor Planet 2602 named 'Moore' after him. But he is real - an eccentric uncle who also happens to be a galactic guru.
   Space is big. Does it go on forever? That's not me. That's ten-year-old Jim Logan from the audience posing the questing no one else would dare to ask. "You've hit the nail on the head there," concedes Patrick with breezy candour. "Now - look, either space is finite, or else it's not. If space is finite, what's outside it? If it ends we have to ask what exists beyond the end. Or else it goes on forever. And if it never ends, then you have to imagine something that goes on forever, and our minds won't take that in. Human beings aren't capable of dealing with such an idea. So either way it's a question no one can answer. It's a multidimensional question. And I'm a four-dimensional creature. So I have to say - I haven't a clue. I can't answer your question. No one can. Yet..."
   Patrick Alfred Moore was born in 1923. And "when I was a very small boy, a very long time ago now, I began by reading some books," he explains. "I read my first science fiction story at the age of eight. I came across a 1908 copy of Young England, a now defunct magazine for boys, and found there a long novel by Fenton Ash called A Son of the Stars. I read it avidly, and journeyed with the two young heroes across space to Mars, a fascinating world with a red sky, towering mountains, and two shining moons." His reminiscence continues (in Science and Fiction - 1957), "I held my breath when one of the heroes was carried off by one of the great bats that lived among the Martian peaks." So perhaps the pseudonymous Fenton Ash - a prolific hack, real name Frank Atkins, who also wrote 'Lost World' fantasia and juvenilia as Frank Aubrey and Fred Ashley; is the man responsible? For, fired by stellar ambition young Patrick began "getting some background information. I bought a star-map and learnt my way around the sky. It doesn't take long. Then - for those thinking of taking up astronomy - do what I did, a word of advice, don't go out and buy a very small telescope. Get binoculars first - then see how you go. And above all, join a local society..."
   He did. And soon after, Patrick achieved the unique distinction of being elected to the British Astronomical Association while still a schoolboy. However, the obvious academic future, which could have followed, was denied by the intervention of a hereditary heart problem, preventing him taking up a place at Eton. So instead he lied about his age and cheated on the medical to join-up for the RAF at 16, in time to use star-charts to fly as a Bomber Navigator during World War II. But this early military service also had the unfortunate side effect of preventing him taking a promised place at Cambridge. Also his sweetheart was killed "in the wrong place at the wrong time," which is why he never married. A strange sad chaos theory of events� Which led to him subsequently devoting his life - not to a person, or to strict academia, but to a mission. Popularising astronomy with missionary zeal.
   His own first novel, Master of the Moon, arrived some considerable time later, in 1952. While Mission to Mars - blurbed: "The book for boys with an earnest interest in space travel" (1956), became the first of his 'Mars quintet'. Here and now I pass a carefully preserved first edition of the novel, with its childish cover-art, across the table for him to sign. "Oh goodness me," he exclaims, examining it critically as though it's a strange alien artefact from before the dawn of time. But here, within these hardback covers, his own young heroes are launched from the British Woomera rocket range in Australia, and also discover life on the red planet, a creature "in the nature of a huge bat, with a body as long as a man's, and flapping membranous wings that beat against the tenuous air as the creature hovered." Some coincidence here... Perhaps? Fenton Ash - remember? Then there's the sequel, The Domes of Mars, in which Patrick's protagonist survives helmet-less in the hostile Martian terrain by plunging his head into oxygenating plants. Bearing in mind Patrick's occasional assertion that SF is useful largely as agitation propaganda for astronomy and astronautics, did he believe that such prose presented an accurate portrayal of Mars as it was understood at the time? "Good heavens, no," he burbles in absurd amusement. "It was just fun. Science fiction comes in two types. Star Trek and Doctor Who are one kind of science fiction. Space opera, and they're just great fun. I must say I used to watch Doctor Who. I was especially fond of the Master. And I liked Star Trek with the original Captain. Before it became politically correct. They're hugely enjoyable, delightful fun. Jules Verne wasn't a science fiction writer. H.G. Wells was. And Arthur C. Clarke is. I made one contribution to the film of Arthur's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was having dinner with Arthur discussing what music to use. I said use 'the Blue Danube'. And they did. That was my idea..."
   All of which neatly orbits Moore's own fiction without ever quite making a soft-landing there. But returning to the theme, what are the realistic chances of finding life on Mars? "Well... I wonder? I think that, after all - with possibly Europa, Mars is still the most likely abode of life in our solar system. There may be primitive life there. It's 50/50. And if so - if we do find any trace of life on Mars, that shows - after all, if life has appeared in our Solar system twice, then it must appear elsewhere too. That is why, after the moon, Mars must be the first world we get to. Europa is Jupiter's second satellite. It's a weird world. A bit smaller than our moon, with an icy surface. And there may well be an ocean of liquid water underneath there. There may be. I dare say there probably is. But after all, with the conditions there - no sunlight, I view the prospect of life there with a large pinch of cosmic salt. But again, we don't know - the jury's still out on that one. But life on worlds beyond the Solar system� I'm quite sure there must be life out there. There are a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy. And many of those must have planets going around them. Therefore there must be many suitable worlds, I'm quite sure there must be. And surely - why should we be unique? I'm sure we're not. Why haven't they contacted us? They may know too much about us already, of course. But after all - distances. You see, we can't exceed the speed of light. As far as we know, the speed of light in a vacuum seems to be a constant. Therefore, if we are about to receive interstellar travellers it will certainly be by some entirely new method of space travel - like space warps, wormholes, teleportation, or time warps. Sheer science fiction, but television was mere science fiction a few decades ago..."

No preamble.
   The stage plunges into a darkness illuminated by a single glowing slab of blurry colour onto which he sequences his slides. His theme tonight is 'Explorers of the Skies', detailing the history of astronomy from its pre-scientific origins in myth and superstition, through slow ages of gradually increasing understanding of the mechanics of spacetime, into speculation for the near future. Twenty-first century astronomers, he says, are standing on the shoulders of giants. He's quoting Isaac Newton. Probably totally unaware he's also quoting Oasis - or possibly not. It's difficult to say. Also, his slides frequently come jumbled in the wrong sequence, rewinding when they should fast-forward, and - visible only as a hugely exaggerated silhouette against a cosmic window, he drops his monocle with an audible clink in irritated agitation. The slides also seem to have got mixed in with his holiday snaps. There's Galileo's place of exile in Florence, with Patrick leaning up against the wall; the weird monument to Wilhelm Herschel in Slough, with Moore himself standing beside it, just in front of the A1 Used Car Lot; then, Moore with Clyde William Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto. Briefly there's an uninterrupted Lord Rosse of Birr Castle in Athelone, discoverer of the spiral structure of the galaxy; then, Galileo Galilei's telescope. And guess who's holding it? Yup.
   There are pictures of Patrick's 'good guys'. The 'giants' upon whose shoulders today's science of astronomy is standing. While the 'bad guys' along the way include the Catholic Church who got it spectacularly wrong on Galileo - Papal persecution, inquisition, you know - the full deal. Even if they did eventually get around to saying 'oops, sorry' - in 1992! He savours the punchline with delicious irony. He derides astrologers, too. "Astrology proves just one scientific principle. There's a mug born every minute." And UFOlogy, "it has all the crackpots crawling out of the woodwork, conspiracy theorists, flying saucer people, all kinds of weird people. Mind you - I did once see some lovely flying saucers. I was in my observatory, looking through my telescope, when I saw something drifting across my field of vision that looked very like flying saucers. Pollen. It turned out to be drifting pollen." Then he snipes at the European Parliament - "the world's most useless society." And the French - he doesn't like the French. A recent Observer profile (7th November 1999) charts his shift into oddball xenophobia. Which is strange and a little disappointing. For a mind capable of spanning a trillion billion light years of space and mind-boggling eternities of time to dislike a people located a short hop across the channel from his own private back garden observatory in Selsey seems... illogical, Captain. Journalist Evan Ferguson cites this "fierce, mad contradiction in his internal logic" as evidence of the "twin capacity for human greatness and human failing. The sublime and the ridiculous personified." But perhaps it's a cantankerous affectation - a deliberate crankiness to add extra character dimension? Or perhaps it's genuine and I'm naive to even expect logical consistency in those who profess to the emotionless clarity of science?
   After all, he seems to enjoy his celebrity. He features in the Morecambe & Wise South Pacific musical spoof alongside personality weather forecasters and newsreaders. Then he appears on Celebrity Squares with failed ventriloquists and past-their-sell-by-date Irish comedians. Then he's on Channel 4's game show, GamesMaster and now he guests on late night chat shows to play his latest musical composition for his beloved xylophone (CDs on sale in the foyer tonight). He enjoys his oddball celebrity, but all the while shoving himself as an amiable eccentric is done in the service of his science. He knows he is the visible face of TV astronomy. And promoting himself is part of drawing attention to that. Nevertheless, showing a slide illustrating the birth of the Solar system, he can't resist adding the irresistible quip "I was away at the time."
   He may be standing on the shoulders of giants, but Patrick Moore has lived through the most eventful period of astronomy in the history of the world. Agreed. He met Orville Wright, who took that first ever flight "Yes, I met him only once, at the very start of the war. A very quiet, very unassuming man." Yet, he points out, Orville Wright could conceivably have met Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon. He didn't. But their lifetimes overlapped. So the entire history of flight could be contained in a shared lifespan. And if so, how much more will be achieved in the lifetimes to come? Later on in Orville Wright's career - Patrick confides, he quit aviation in disgust at its military applications. Yet much of the momentum behind the development of space flight was a direct spin-off from World War II and the Cold War arms race. Does he feel comfortable with the morality of that? He shrugs massively. "It was war. Remember Von Braun was in Germany, in Peenemunde, developing the V2 missiles to bombard London during the final stages of the war. In 1943 the RAF bombed Peenenmnde. I wasn't on that raid. But I might have been. I could have been. Then, only a matter of years later, he was heading the team of leading rocket engineers behind the American space programme and we were both having lunch together in New York..." He lets both the contradiction and the moral hang without any clean resolution, beyond a dismissive "it was war... then it was not. But I do believe that when history is written in the far future - assuming that the Earth is still habitable, and homo sapiens has not wiped itself out, dates such as 1066, 1914 and 1919 will be forgotten, but 4th October 1957 when Russia's miniature Sputnik 1 ushered in a new era, will be very well remembered."
   The Sky at Night began on the evening of 24th April 1957, when most readers of this website were less than a sparkle of DNA in their father's scrotum, Often it gets shoved late and lost in the schedules, but it still goes out monthly where it remains a tribal focal point for generations of quasi-Curly Watts and comet-spotting anoraks. When it began, Lonnie Donegan was number one in the pop charts and the cosmos was a smaller and simpler place. Planets, at best, were blurry discs the size of coins, viewed from exclusively ground-based observatories. No robot probes or Hubble space telescopes. Even the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe was the lesser and unlikeliest of two hotly disputed contentions. The other, championed by Yorkshire-born astronomer Fred Hoyle, was the now maligned, 'steady state' idea that a constantly renewing universe had always been as it is now, and always would be - a calmer, less spectacular, more poetic concept.
   Somewhere around this time, Patrick Moore wrote a regular column for Arthur Mee's Children's Newspaper where I confess I first encountered his contagiously boundless enthusiasm. He wrote Guide to the Moon, The Boys' Book of Space, and Guide to the Planets... the first of an island universe of heavy and authoritative volumes that continue to appear with the regularity of pulsars to this day, over 100 and counting. While over that same span of years he got to meet Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet's first man in space... and Neil Armstrong, "when Neil and Buzz touched down, all kinds of questions were still unanswered. They had no idea what the surface was like. No one knew quite how moving around on the Moon in one-sixth gravity would be. And what is not widely appreciated is that with Apollo there was no provision for rescue. If they'd had a faulty landing, if anything had gone wrong on the moon, there was no way they could have got back. I was doing the commentary. And when I heard Neil's voice coming through - 'the Eagle has landed', I felt overwhelming relief, believe me. Because they'd got over the first two obstacles." Then Buzz Aldrin told him of the 'magnificent desolation' of the Mare Tranquillitatis (okay, the Sea of Tranquillity to you and me). And "the last man on the Moon, Eugene Ceman. I talked to him the other day. He said his greatest thrill was standing on the Moon and seeing the Earth, a quarter-of a-million miles away. Quite something."
   His most cherished Sky at Night moment? "Probably it was the programme shown in October 1959 when the Russians, using my lunar cartography, sent the first unmanned probe to the dark side of the Moon. The pictures were beamed directly onto TV while I was live, on air." An exciting time - the fulfilment of dreams - and his enthusiasm remains undiminished by recent setbacks in space exploration. What about the resumption of manned flights to the Moon? "Within ten years," A colony on Mars? "Within the lifetime of people here tonight. And I'm sure probably, the first man on Mars has been born now. And I hope he'll send me an email when he gets there! But manned space flight is only one of the aspects of space research," he emphasises. "And probably not the most important one. Astronomical science alone has been changed beyond recognition."
   Does Patrick Moore have a favourite planet? "In a summary, as far as my own interests are concerned, I'm essentially a Moon man. My own particular love is the Moon - my own particular study is mapping the Moon. I helped make the maps used for the NASA Moon landings." What of recent suggestions of water-ice detected in Lunar craters? "Is there ice on the Moon? No. I don't believe a word of it. You see, the point is, with the Moon, all the samples brought back show no indication of any such materials at all. And after all, how did ice get there - was it dumped there by a comet? I think not. There are no skating rinks on the Moon. But if I have to select my favourite planetary body, yes, I've got to say the Moon, if you class the Moon as a planet. Personally I regard the Earth and Moon as a double planet. Otherwise I've got to say Mars..." He talks rapidly, of course. You know that. The Sky at Night only runs for 25 minutes. He has to maximise word content. So he talks like an auctioneer at 300-words-a-minute, snapping the end off words the better to cram them all in. But they also come in a chain of sharply abrupt phrases through which he stabs himself questions, then raps answers back in a continual non-stop self contained dialogue.
   But consider this, affection for Mars is in some ways an affection for a world that never existed - a world that is a collective construct of generations of imaginative writers and often mistaken theorists. So perhaps some mind-gene inherited from Fenton Ash is still partially responsible. While the beautiful strangeness of the planets and moons revealed by the robot Voyager probes - and by astronomy in general, continues to provide a powerful lure. One that is as much poetic as it is scientific. Just as, to believe that the legacy of 20th century science will still be illuminating and elevating human lives, long after the evils of dictators such as Pinochet, Pol Pot and Saddam Houssein are forgotten, is also an essentially incontrovertible - but idealistic notion. So yes, it is naive - and limiting, to expect logical consistency in those who profess to the emotionless clarity of science.
   Now Patrick Moore deals on a regular month-by-month basis with astrophysics of staggering complexity. Black holes where "all the laws of common sense break down, just like in the House of Commons." Then there are pulsars, cold Dark Matter, quantum physics, quasars, E=MC ... erm, Hammer, and 11-dimensional Big Bang super-string theory. Surely there must be times - I struggle to phrase the question in a way that will avoid giving offence, surely there must be times when even you find yourself overwhelmed by the advances in astronomical data, and you feel out of your depth in the sheer weight and complexity of the new science? "Oh yes, almost all of the time," he chortles happily, no offence taken. "I'm constantly out of my depth. I try my best as far as I can to keep abreast. But for all I know about it, when I do The Sky at Night, I just get my guests onto the programme, I sit them down, and leave them get on with it." Engagingly self-deprecating, yet some false modesty there too, perhaps, for Patrick Moore retains the knack of asking those same guests the most pertinent and incisive question. He's in his seventh decade, sure, but he is still there where the galactic action is at its hottest.
   So tell me Patrick - what star sign are you? No. I didn't say that. I bottled out. But I thought of saying it. I really did. Space might be big. Vastly, hugely mind-bogglingly big - but it isn't big enough to ask a question like that.
Patrick Moore
Patrick Moore


With more than
40 years of
continuous
monthly
screenings the
Sky at Night
now ranks as the
world's longest
running TV
programme


New Guide to the Planets
published by
Sidgwick & Jackson, 1993


The Apollo Story
The Apollo Story
Paradox Video, 1995
2-tape documentary
(includes Apollo 13)
released to coincide
with the 25th
anniversary of the
Apollo programme,
has Patrick Moore
narrating the
history of manned
space-flight, a
history in which -
from first to last
- he's been an active
participant, as
BBC commentator

Apollo 13
Books by Patrick Moore: (selected titles, A-Z)
Astronomy (1988),  Astronomy Before the Telescope (1999),  The Astronomy of Birr Castle (1992),  Astronomy with Small Telescopes (2001),  Atlas of the Solar System (1998),  Atlas of the Universe (1998),  Beginner's Guide to Astronomy (1997),  Comets and Shooting Stars (1996),  Countdown! ...or How Nigh Is the End? (1999),  The Data Book of Astronomy (2001),  Exploring the Night Sky with Binoculars (1996),  Eyes on the Universe (1997),  The Great Astronomical Revolution (1995),  Guide to Comets (1977),  Legends of the Stars (1992),  Let's Look at the Sky: the Stars (1995),  The Modern Amateur Astronomer (1995),  New Guide To The Planets (1993),  Observers Astronomy (1993),  The Observational Amateur Astronomer (1995),  Patrick Moore on Mars (1999),  Patrick Moore on the Moon (2001),  Philip's Atlas of the Universe (1999),  Philip's Guide to Stars and Planets (1997),  Philip's Guide to the Night Sky (1995),  The Planet Neptune (1998),  The Planets (1996),  Small Astronomical Observatories (1996),  Space Travel for the Beginner (1992),  Stargazing (2000),  Starry Sky (1994),  The Stars (1996),  The Sun (1968),  Suns, Myths, and Men (1969),  Teach Yourself Astronomy (1995),  The Wandering Astronomer (1999),  West Country Eclipse (1998),  What's New in Space? (1983),  Young Astronomer and His Telescope (2000)         Buy books at:  Amazon.co.uk   Amazon.com
visit Patrick Moore's Sky at Night website

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