Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Late, Great Patrick Moore

by Jeremy Thomas

Patrick Moore, at his home in Selsey, West Sussex
(source: Guardian)
Imagine a large auditorium in Central London, crowded with several hundred teenagers, eagerly awaiting the appearance on stage of one of their idols. Rapturous applause breaks out, cat-calling and foot stamping as the entire young audience rise to their feet and cheer wildly. Shambling onto the stage appears a large man, in a dark blue suit, an RAF Association tie, a shock of wild, grey hair and an instantly recognisable, trademark monocle. Surely there has been some mistake? This is no singer or TV pseudo-star, but a 70-something year old man, famous only for hosting a late-night, geeky TV show, on astronomy, and for playing the xylophone!

Unbelievable as it may seem, I actually experienced this phenomenon in 1997, when escorting a party of sixth form pupils to an A-level Physics conference at Westminster Hall. The sight of so many teenagers paying spontaneous tribute to Sir Patrick Moore was very touching and began to reassure me that my move into teaching, from research, might, after all, be worthwhile!

Patrick Moore (centre) with NASA astronauts
Piers Sellers (left) and Ken Ham (right), Portsmouth, 2010
(source:  BBC)
Sir Patrick proceeded to give an inspiring lecture on his belief that humans would inhabit Mars within 50 years, illustrated with a totally random collection of 35mm slides. The randomness of the presentation added to its charm, Sir Patrick merely ignoring the order of the pictures and talking intelligently and relevantly about whatever appeared on the screen when he advanced the projector!

The next time I encountered Sir Patrick was in a rather more personal fashion, when I was able to sit with him on board HMS Warrior, during the Gala Dinner hosted by PGS for the NASA Astronaut crew of Space Shuttle STS-132. Sir Patrick was rather less mobile by this time, but still held interesting conversations with those around him, insisting on screwing his monocle into his eye for any photographs! Captain Ken Ham, commander of the STS-132 mission, was visibly moved to meet Sir Patrick, knowing the part he had played in mapping the Moon for NASA prior to the Apollo missions.

Patrick Moore and Jane Green
at Portsmouth Grammar School, 2011
Since this meeting in 2010, there were two further occasions when PGS had encounters with Sir Patrick. The first was in 2011, when he co-presented a lecture on Astronomy, in the David Russell Theatre, as part of the 2011 Festivities ‘Space City’. The lecture was delivered by Jane Green, editor of the Haynes Astronomy Manual, with Sir Patrick standing by to answer questions and correct any misinformation! Poor Ms.Green had to smile indulgently during the Hayling Island Bookshop book-signing after the lecture, while Sir Patrick happily autographed her book for nearly every member of the audience.

Our final encounter with Sir Patrick at PGS came in early 2012, when we were extremely honoured to be asked to take part in his iconic TV programme, The Sky at Night. This is the world’s longest-running TV show with the same presenter, Sir Patrick appearing in every programme, from its start in 1957, until his death 55 years later. Although we didn’t meet Sir Patrick on this occasion, it was certainly a privilege for our pupils to have appeared in one of his programmes and to have played a small part in such a legendary piece of television history. The programme we appeared in was aptly entitled ‘Citizen Astronomy’, a phrase which could be associated with only one person in this field, the late, great Sir Patrick Moore.

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