Sir Patrick Moore, who has died aged 89, had the air of a crusty, uncompromising bachelor and slightly dotty boffin who could have walked straight out of a Victorian or Edwardian novel. An amateur but distinguished astronomer, star of television programmes including GamesMaster, prolific author, composer and manic xylophone player, he was a true, quite unselfconscious British eccentric – and a populariser of science without equal in an era of great but often abstruse discovery.
In his capacity as an astronomer, he helped map the moon and was for more than half a century until his death the presenter of BBC TV's The Sky at Night, missing only a single episode through illness, in July The following year the programme spawned a monthly magazine.
The Sky at Night appealed hugely to laymen as well as experts. This was largely because of Moore's ability to make inspired connections and analogies: linking the Milky Way to a fried egg, a solar eclipse to a Spanish taxi-driver and the moon to a dog walking uphill. Few people with degrees in science – he had no degrees in anything except many honorary doctorates – could have held the audience so imaginatively and with so little self-importance.
Moore was interested in astronomy from the age of six, and became a member of the British Astronomical Association at In his old age he became a more broadly based television personality, complete with eyeglass, bushy brows, enormous bulk and a liking for mustard tweed suits that would have been looked upon with caution by an old-fashioned bookmaker.
As a musician, his output included operas, and once, at the Theatre Royal Bath, he played 21 xylophone pieces, 19 of which he had written himself. In evening dress with his shirt-front threatening to take off at any moment, he played the same instrument on the Room "pet hates" television programme in after telling Paul Merton that he hated plastic food wrappers, "too many female teachers" and the Archbishop of Canterbury for not denouncing hunting.
It was one of the ironies of Moore's altogether strange life that, while he was quite comfortable thinking in cosmic terms as an astronomer, and could envisage forms of life similar to our own out there in space, he was in political thinking a Little Englander, always harking back to and Britain's finest hour as the yardstick by which to judge contemporary happenings.
But Moore was never a stereotype rightwinger or anything else, as his strong denunciation of hunting as an unnecessary cruelty ("but you can't argue with these filthy people") demonstrated. He was in several respects simply the archetypal cocksure small boy who never grew up, typing his more than books, including many editions of the Guinness Book of Astronomy Facts & Feats, on the typewriter he had been given as a boy of eight. He also harboured the cuckoo clock he was given for his seventh birthday, the telescope he bought for seven shillings at ten, and the boy's bike he rode until his late 70s, when he had to have a replacement knee and his bicycle was not in first-rate form either.
About his personal life he was always reticent. When TV Astronomer: Thirty Years of the Sky at Night, was published in , readers were told: "This book is in no way meant to be an autobiography, if only because nobody would be in the slightest degree interested."
This emphatic choice of words was characteristic of his machine-gun delivery – he could talk at words a minute (and type at words a minute). But it did not put off media interviewers who dug for explanations of why he had never married. Moore would say that his fiancee had been killed in the war and he would not settle for second best.
Until the mids he lived with his mother in East Grinstead, mid-Sussex, where he was a leading light in the chess club, and then in a handsome house made from several cottages in Selsey, on the West Sussex coast, until she died at 94 in He lived alone for many years after that, but then shared his home with a godson.
If Moore had an unusual life – ultimately relenting on his suspicion of autobiographies, so that his Eighty Not Out, with paring personal details, appeared in , and as a paperback in under the title Patrick Moore the Autobiography – he also had an unusual background. Born in Pinner, west London, he was the son of Captain Charles Caldwell-Moore, MC, who died when the boy was very young, leaving him in a tenacious relationship with an ex-opera singer mother, Gertrude, whom he adored and felt to be his only security. She was also an accomplished artist, as was evident from her amusing illustrations, such as a Christmas card showing Martians on canals.
Because of a heart condition, he was largely educated at home by tutors and his mother. Possessed of perfect pitch, he played and composed for the xylophone from the age of 12, but was even more precocious in astronomy. When he was six, his mother gave him George F Chambers's Story of the Solar System, which he read curled up on a dining room chair – and kept all his life.
In , at 13, he published Small Craterlets in the Mare Crisium, his first scientific paper on the moon. Even his small telescope could show up a great deal of detail on the moon's surface, making it especially attractive to amateur astronomers at a time when professionals tended to neglect it.
But for the second world war, he had intended to go to Cambridge University. In order to enter the RAF, he not only lied about his age, but also got someone else to impersonate him and take the medical for him, so that he could conceal his heart problem. He trained as a navigator on bombers, later sometimes reminiscing about flying over Germany on Pathfinder flights.
He maintained that though he had been compelled to learn how to fly, he was not acceptable to the RAF as a pilot because he always flew with one wing lower than the other. While he was in hospital after an injury, his heart condition was discovered: he relinquished his commission in and took up the defusing of bombs.
Later he became an air training corps officer in the voluntary reserves, reaching the rank of squadron leader. Some of the sights of suffering he had witnessed sickened him and fuelled his hatred of Germans; and he returned to civilian life in a robust, even bellicose, state of mind.
Unlike many servicemen colleagues, he refused to accept a grant to go to university, protesting, "Either I do a thing myself or I don't do it at all." He turned to teaching, but in gave that up to become a freelance author, writing children's novels.
On the subject of flying saucers, then very much in vogue, Moore maintained that he kept an open mind, though he may have said this purely to provoke discussion: he was involved in at least one hoax to show how easy it was to get the public to believe they had seen one. At any rate, his friend Douglas Leslie felt that Moore would have enough to say on the subject to put him forward for a discussion programme on BBC television dealing with UFOs. The producer Paul Johnstone was then looking for an astronomer-presenter, and so in April Moore appeared on the first edition of The Sky at Night.
Johnstone had found both the right presenter and the right moment. The Russians were about to launch Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Moore's programme recorded most of the rapid developments in the space field. The Russian Lunik 3's first pictures of the far side of the moon were quickly on the air, and when Lunik 4 missed the moon by 5, miles and all the British astronomers delegated to watch it were defeated by bad weather, Moore had "one of my first experiences of what is known in broadcasting jargon as padding". His ability to think on his feet, and to talk so fast that critics were never quite sure of what they heard, was vital.
With one exception after his teaching days – his directorship of Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland () – Moore was never an employee. Often hard-up, dependent on battered old cars and bicycles, he gave his time readily to a large number of international organisations including his honorary membership of the Astronomic Society of the USSR. He maintained loose links with Russian astronomers, in spite of many obstacles when the cold war was still on.
He was appointed OBE in , CBE in , and knighted in
He captained the local cricket team, and was a formidable bowler until he had to have an artificial knee. One explanation for his use of a monocle in later life was the eye injury he suffered when fielding in the slips at too great an age.
In the late s he formed his own political party, the United Country Party, for those who had "common sense" and who wanted an end to inflation, rubbish rotting in the streets and immigration. He was a friend of Norris McWhirter and his rightwing Freedom Association.
In the s he announced that he would not back the Tories again because they were in favour of hunting. He founded the Halley Club (after the comet), which had no subscription, no rules, no aims or objects. He described it himself as the "most useless club in the world – after the European Parliament, of course", and went on to support Ukip.
Though his opposition to immigration and, latterly, Britain becoming "a dumping ground" for economic as distinct from political refugees, alienated many leftwingers, he was too patently against human or animal suffering and too scatter-gun in his beliefs to make such critics more than mildly uncomfortable.
His attitude to party politics in general was indicated by his flirtation with the Monster Raving Loony Party on the grounds that they "had one advantage over all the other parties – they knew they were loonies". His highly individualistic attitude to organisations in general was well summed up when he once observed, "I'm thinking of starting the Politically Incorrect School of Sociology – and the acronym says it all." The initials were indeed just what he thought applied to so much of the modern world.
His tireless work explaining the wonders of the universe - punctuated by his mantra of scientific inquiry, "We just don't know" – was altogether more creditable and important.
Brian Warner, emeritus professor of astronomy, University of Cape Town, writes: There are many individuals in successive generations of professional astronomers who owe a great deal to the books and personal support of Patrick Moore. He introduced children of all ages to astronomy, and some of them became prominent professionals in astrophysics and planetary sciences.
Having, as a schoolboy, lived within bicycling distance of Patrick's house in East Grinstead, I benefited from his encouragement and generosity of time and, indeed, from his introduction to those who were later to become my teachers and mentors. And I still value the inscribed books he gave me during those years. The scope of his books went well beyond introductory and popular texts – his early lunar and planetary publications were well-rounded reviews that included much from the professional literature. Some books, such as the one on Neptune (), were useful contributions to the history of astronomy.
Patrick's eccentric presence and encylopedic knowledge, as a radio voice and TV personality present at many of the significant astronomical and space related events over more than half a century, steadily maintained public interest in the subject and helped encourage the large increase in entrants to university astronomy courses. Other sciences should have been so lucky.
• Patrick Moore (Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore), astronomer, television presenter and writer, born 4 March ; died 9 December
• This article was amended on 10 December The original said The Sky at Night was first broadcast in April The year has been corrected to
Then there was the occasion that he visited Utah with a television crew. Welcome to the Mormon state, said a humourless citizen. We are quite different from the rest of America. You will find no swearing or drinking or wild women here.
Its hardly worth coming, is it? replied Moore.
One of his greatest triumphs was to explain the concept of a giant black hole in the centre of our galaxy. This was a particularly difficult feat to accomplish on television, where directors strive for visual interest . So Moore had a map of the Milky Way drawn on the studio floor. He walked towards the centre, explaining Einsteins general theory of relativity in the most lucid manner as he did so, and then, by some feat of technological conjuring, simply disappeared.
Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore was born at Pinner, Middlesex, on March 4 , the son of Captain Charles Caldwell-Moore, MC. Later the family moved to Sussex, where Patrick was to live for the rest of his life. He was educated at home owing to ill health, and wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 13 his chosen subject was the features in a lunar crater he had seen through a small telescope.
At the end of he joined the RAF to train for aircrew duties, and during left for Canada for training as a navigator. He was commissioned in June and completed his training at a bomber conversion unit at Lossiemouth in northern Scotland but, due to epilepsy, was declared medically unfit for further flying duties. He spent some time in the RAFs training branch before leaving the Service in From he had made his living as a freelance writer.
The Sky at Night started almost by accident. One day in the BBC broadcast a somewhat sensationalist programme about flying saucers. Producers wanted a counterview by a thoroughly reactionary and sceptical astronomer who knew some science and could talk . This turned out to be Moore. He little guessed that he was starting a series that would last for half a century.
We had many problems, he once observed. At that time astronomy was regarded as an eccentric study practised by old men with long white beards. The space age had not started. Sending a man to the Moon was regarded as little more than a music-hall joke. But with Cold War competition driving on the superpowers, the worlds attention was soon directed upwards as mankind, in the form of Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong, took his place in the firmament. Like Jacques Cousteau explaining the depths below, Moore became an essential guide to heavens above.
His popularity, however, was not achieved at the expense of scholarship. His books each rapped out on his grandfathers Remington typewriter and collectively selling millions were as meticulous as those of the Royal Society Fellows who attracted only a few hundred readers. His coffee-table masterpiece The Atlas of the Universe (, revised ) was a feast of accurate knowledge about comets, asteroids, stars and galaxies, and is widely regarded as one of the best standard reference books on astronomy.
When a book about Jupiter and its moons had the misfortune to come out at the same time as a tome on the subject by someone else, he was asked if the competition worried him. No, he declared with satisfaction. I took the trouble to include the latest findings from the American Voyager spacecraft. The other fellow couldnt be bothered. Thats the difference between us.
Yet there were many other sides to Moore besides astronomy. He was a connoisseur of music, and sometimes played a xylophone on television. He also wrote the score for an opera about Theseus and the Minotaur, and appeared in the chorus as a hairy-chested, armour-vested, double-breasted, great red-crested man of the Cretan guard .
His size belied the fact that he was a keen sportsman too particularly on the cricket pitch, where he proved a demon spin bowler. He also played golf and once at his local course set a club record of , including a 43 on the third hole. Chess was another passion (he often carried with him a pocket chess set) and even dabbled in politics. In the general election of he helped launch the United Country Party, complaining that the Conservatives were too wet . A staunch eurosceptic, he later joined Ukip.
He would happily appear on chat shows, quiz shows and comedy shows, among them The Goodies; Morecambe and Wise; Blankety Blank, and Have I Got News For You. He even starred in digitised form on the childrens video game show GamesMaster.
In he wrote a humorous but inflammatory book called Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them. It advised that imposing a thin layer of candle grease on those parts of a form marked for official use only would prevent the recipient from writing anything and probably drive him mad. Useful when dealing with the Inland Revenue, said Moore. A keen pipe smoker, he was elected Pipeman of the Year in I regard two classes of people as being beyond the pale, he said when accepting the award. Weight-watchers and those who have just given up smoking.
He had as little sympathy for the peddlers of what he considered pseudoscience. Astrology he declared rubbish . And he was deeply angered in the s by a book co-written by the journalist John Gribbin called The Jupiter Effect, which predicted that in the planets would be so closely aligned that their combined gravitational fields would cause earthquakes all over the world.
Both the data and the conclusion, Moore said, were nonsense. The planets were not in alignment, and even if they had been, they were much too small and too far away to cause the predicted earthquakes. Despite his efforts, Gribbins book became a bestseller and was the subject of a solemn presentation at the London Planetarium.
Moore was furious. A show at the Planetarium gives an idea scientific authority, and people who saw its treatment of the Gribbin effect were seriously alarmed. Moore campaigned successfully to have the Planetarium show taken off and afterwards presented a humorous Sky at Night programme showing the idea up as the nonsense he considered it to be.
By the same token, he was sceptical when some astronauts apparently claimed that in space they had had visions of God. Moore was asked: What do you think they really saw?
I think they saw the Moon.
He had always loved our planets satellite. I would love to go there, he said, but Im too old. Instead, through his powerful 15in reflecting telescope he charted its craters so accurately that the Russians used his maps to plan their unmanned lunar probes.
When in the Science and Engineering Research Council announced its intention to sell Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex (since the war it had been the administrative headquarters of the Royal Greenwich Observatory), Moore led a campaign to stop the sale and produced an epitaph to publicise his efforts: Created by Charles II, destroyed by Sir Humphrey Appleby a reference to the conspiratorial civil servant in the television series Yes, Minister.
But the government approved the sale. A frustrated Moore made a bid to buy the castle, organising a consortium that raised £10 million. He wanted to use Herstmonceux, and its low-powered telescopes, as a national centre for scientific education. But his bid was not accepted.
In he had to rebuild the observatory at his home at Selsey, Sussex, after it was partly destroyed by a tornado. Meanwhile, he cheerfully bore the attentions of numerous television impressionists, though he upbraided Mike Yarwood over a pronounced scar above his left eyebrow, a relic of a motorbike accident in After Moore complained, Yarwood kindly repositioned it .
In Moore was appointed honorary vice-president of the Society for the History of Astronomy. He also won a Bafta for his services to television, a medium on which he became probably the first man to swallow a fly live on air. His producer recalled the look of glazed horror as the insect vanished into Moores mouth in mid-flow, the presenters words finally failing in a strangled gulp. Yes, dear, his mother sympathised later, it was nasty for you, but so much worse for the fly.
Patrick Moore continued to publish books to the end of his life. Recent titles include Patrick Moore on the Moon (, new edition ); The Data Book of Astronomy (); Patrick Moore: the autobiography (); Asteroid (with Arthur C Clarke, ); Stars of Destiny (); Ancient Lights (); and Can You Play Cricket on Mars? (). This year alone he published Astronomy with a Budget Telescope: An Introduction to Practical Observing; The Sky at Night: Answers to Questions from Across the Universe; Miaow!: Cats really are nicer than people!; and The New Astronomy Guide: Star Gazing in the Digital Age.
He was appointed OBE in , CBE in and knighted in
In a minor planet was named after him by the International Astronomical Union. He also held the posts of president of the British Astronomical Association and director of the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland. Yet the Royal Society refused to elect him as a Fellow one of their number declared that he had committed the ultimate sin of making science popular . In , however, he was elected to an honorary Fellowship.
He was unmarried, and once remarked: I would have liked a wife and family, but it was not to be.
Sir Patrick Moore, born March 4 , died December 9