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Sunday 17 November 2019

Patrick Moore

Astronomer who explored and explained the wonders of The Sky at Night in unique style

PATRICK Moore, who has died aged 89, became an essential guide to the heavens above, educating people about astronomy and space travel.

A genuine eccentric who never took himself too seriously, Moore played up to his image as a "mad professor", and wrote more than 100 books, most of them about astronomy for a popular audience. His monthly Sky at Night programme – launched on BBC in April 1957 – attracted millions of viewers.

Moore became celebrated for the thunderous fervour with which he would say: "We just don't know!" to emphasise that our comprehension of the universe is incomplete. He was noted for his piercing gaze, the machine-gun pace of his speech, his wildly untidy hair and his oversized suits.

Regular viewers of The Sky at Night – he was the world's longest-running presenter of a single television show – agreed that the secret of its success lay not only in his tremendous knowledge but also in his gusto and humour. On one occasion, he appeared dressed in a spacesuit and a fishbowl helmet, pretending to be a Martian.

To make the point that we should not assume other planets to be lifeless just because their conditions were different from Earth's, he declared: "I am surprised to see you all. I had thought your thick atmosphere and excessive water would have prevented life from evolving here."

He was equally famous for his bluntness. "Welcome to the Mormon state," said a humourless citizen to Moore on a visit to Utah. "We are quite different from the rest of America. You will find no swearing or drinking or wild women here."

"It's hardly worth coming, is it?" replied Moore.

Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore was born at Pinner, Middlesex, on March 4, 1923. 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 on the features in a lunar crater he had seen through a small telescope.

At the end of 1941 he joined the RAF but, due to epilepsy, had to stop flying duties. From 1952, he made his living as a freelance writer.

The Sky at Night started almost by accident. In 1957 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.

His popularity, however, was not achieved at the expense of scholarship. His books – rapped out on his grandfather's 1892 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 (1970, revised 2007) is widely regarded as one of the best standard reference books on astronomy.

Yet there were many other sides to Moore. He was a connoisseur of music, and played a xylophone. 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 set a club record of 231, including a 43 on the third hole. Chess was another passion (he often carried a pocket chess set) and he even dabbled in politics.

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.

In 1982 he wrote a humorous but inflammatory book called Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them. It advised that 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. A keen pipe smoker, he was elected Pipeman of the Year in 1983. "I regard two classes of people as being beyond the pale," he said. "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". By the same token, he was sceptical when some astronauts apparently claimed that in space they had had visions of God. "I think they saw the Moon," said Moore.

In 1998 he had to rebuild the observatory at his home at Selsey, after it was partly destroyed by a tornado. In 2002, Moore was appointed honorary vice-president of the Society for the History of Astronomy. He also won a Bafta for his services to television, and was probably the first man to swallow a fly live on air. His producer recalled the look of glazed horror as the insect vanished into Moore's mouth in mid-flow, his 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."

He was appointed OBE in 1968, CBE in 1988 and knighted in 2001. In 1982 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. 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 2001, 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."

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