I’ve several times in my life regretted my lack of knowledge or skill in science. Looking back on my childhood, it’s almost like I feel that in some way that I failed two men who – through enthusiasm, passion, a concern to inspire others to care and not a little eccentricity – inspired so many others to take their first steps into lives later spent exploring science and technology: Heinz Wolff and Sir Patrick Moore. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet both men, albeit briefly. Professor Wolff I encountered by pure luck in a University canteen queue, where the words “Wow, Heinz Wolff!” had escaped my lips before I could stop them. For the next hour, he tirelessly explained some of the ideas he was working on, improvising with cutlery and salt and pepper pots: it was my own personal episode of The Great Egg Race, and I still wish my head had the equivalent of iPlayer.
Professor Wolff, fortunately, is still with us, while Sir Patrick sadly passed away recently. My brief encounter came in early childhood, as my family holidayed near his Sussex home. I can still remember walking home with my father, eating chips straight from the newspaper, and stopping to peer at the telescope in his garden. Had we known the man himself was in his garden, we would not have dreamed of being so cheeky, but he spotted us and chatted charmingly and inimitably for several minutes. And when my father confessed my own dismal prowess in science as I was obsessed with music, Sir Patrick was visibly (and audibly) relieved that I was not perhaps a total loss to humanity.
But what I, like countless others, will remember better are his television appearances over the decades: his archetypal English eccentricity gave him charisma in spades, but that alone would never have sustained The Sky At Night as the world’s longest running TV series and its host a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the medium’s most prolific presenter. Yet the man himself remained eternally self-deprecating, as his comments on The Sky At Night’s 50th Anniversary show:
Astronomy’s a fascinating subject. You look up… you can’t help getting interested and it’s there. We’ve tried to bring it to the people.. it’s not me, it’s the appeal of the subject.”
An amateur who was always at pains to make that status clear, I suspect that he would genuinely blush were he able to pull off the impossible feat of reading the obituaries that have appeared in the last few days, not just from the mainstream media but in the scientific press. Amateur he may have been, but not many amateurs have their work – in Sir Patrick’s case, the mapping of the moon – adopted by NASA.
Yet the most lasting impression of the man at the end of a tribute programme broadcast by the BBC earlier this week (Sir Patrick Moore: Astronomer, Broadcaster and Eccentric – available on iPlayer until 18 December), was his passion for inspiring and encouraging others. One example was astronomer, Heather Couper CBE CPhys:
Astronomer Heather Couper said: “I wrote to Patrick Moore when I was 16, and I wondered what I was going to do with my life. I thought I’d like to be an astronomer.”
“I wrote a P.S. at the bottom of my letter: ‘P.S. I’m a girl.’ He replied saying: ‘Let me reassure you that being a girl is not a problem at all’.
As the programme showed, Sir Patrick remained at pains to answer very letter he received, bashing out advice and encouragement on his ancient typewriter into the small hours of the morning. Ready to send himself up in comedy programmes or to be spoofed by others (although Ronnie Barker’s was apparently his favourite), he was once quoted as saying:
At my age I do what Mark Twain did. I get my daily paper, look at the obituaries page and if I’m not there I carry on as usual.
Although we’re unfortunate to have lost a man who managed not only to popularise astronomy but to motivate the next generation of its practitioners to take it up, in his passing Sir Patrick is in a different way continuing to do as Mark Twain – providing lasting inspiration.
It seems fitting to conclude with Sir Patrick’s Castaway’s Favourite from his appearance on Desert Island Discs: Karl Komzak II’s Bad’ner Madl’n Waltz .