Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Knights Tale

Earlier this year I was commissioned to conduct an interview and write it up for a magazine. The article didn't go out for reasons, that are private, but here, in its uncut form is the piece I wrote about someone who I had known for 22 years, who was my teacher, and like millions of others, an inspirational astronomer... Sir Patrick Moore. The poignant last paragraph a testament to a man, who I spent the entire day with, laughing, joking and talking about all things astronomy. The almost 3 hours of mp3 recordings I still have of this interview are very precious to me for many reasons, as they tell the truth of  the day with a great astronomer, and the wonderful day spent in his company.

A Knights Tale

After a record breaking 55 years presenting the BBC’s seminal “Sky at Night” television program, Nick Howes visits the home of Sir Patrick Moore

The drive down to Selsey, a seaside town on the south coast of England is always one filled with excitement. I have known Sir Patrick (or just Patrick as he likes to be called) since the late 1980s when he was a visiting lecturer in planetary science at my University. In those days, he’d make the journey in a vintage black car, typically eccentric in style, and come bounding in to what was always a packed lecture hall, full of wide eyed undergraduates devouring his every word. I’d been re-introduced after almost 20 years courtesy of invites to be a part of some Sky at Night television shows, where a group of amateurs were invited to his large garden, with telescopes, to have a mini star party.

Patrick lives in a wonderful thatched roof house, in an area famed for its almost mythical micro climate. Selsey, despite its proximity to the large naval city of Portsmouth, is a relatively good dark site location, and with its closeness to the sea, and protrusion out from the nearby coast, seems to have clear skies, even when the aforementioned nearby city is overcast.  The house, which Patrick has lived in for around 50 years is known as “Farthings” (Far Things!), resplendent with wood panelling throughout, it’s like entering a gallery or museum of the greatest achievements in astronomy of the past half a century.

Barring the Knighthood, which Patrick received from her Majesty the Queen in 2001, he also holds a CBE, OBE, and one of his proudest achievements, being made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society, also in 2001.

I was greeted at the door by one of his assistants. Patrick, at the tender age of 89, has long suffered with ailments which he says stem from a “war time spinal injury, which finally caught up with me”. He finds his current physical state, compounded with acute arthritis “immensely frustrating” not only due to the fact that he cannot use his beloved telescopes any more, but also that he can’t pursue some of his other passions in life, being cricket and music.

I asked Patrick first about his music. An accomplished xylophone player since the age of 9, though he was playing the piano from a much earlier age (allegedly before he could even talk), he famously once accompanied Albert Einstein who was playing Saint-Saen's the Swan on the violin.

“I loved to compose, and as for my own musical tastes the music of Strauss is some of my favourite music. I love his grasp of harmony” Patrick himself having many notable compositions to his name.

A long-time friend of Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, who recently returned after 36 years with that iconic group to complete his doctorate in “zodiacal dust clouds”, Patrick says “I like Brian so much, a terrific friend, and a good astronomer, but I don’t like his music, and I’ve told him as much. Our musical tastes are sadly separated by a few hundred years”

Patrick’s xylophone still gets played by those he invites to use it, and his musical compositions, were even that week being played at a local concert by a young local xylophonist. He hands me a leaflet with the concert details “I shall be going to see that, would you like to come along?” he asks. This is Patrick through and through; he’s an incredibly warm and welcoming individual, who makes you feel very much at home whenever you see him. In a time when celebrity culture is being criticised so much in the press, to find a man, who still lists his phone number in the telephone book, and welcomes guests, is refreshing.

Patrick famously mapped the moon in the 1960s for both the Russian and U.S programs, and pre missions to the lunar far side, discovered the crater Einstein, and for a time was credited also with the “discovery” of Mare Orientale (though this is now credited to Julius Franz) His lunar maps were and still are some of the best ever made, pre the large scale imaging surveys. Patrick has always been a visual observer, even with the advent of modern CCD imagers at a time when he was still active, Patrick stated that there was and is nothing better than being at the eyepiece.

His lunar and planetary sketchbooks are almost legendary, with detailed annotated (sometimes amusingly) drawings, his passion for solar system planetary bodies really does shine through. “I am pleased that one of the new co-presenters of the Sky at Night, Paul Abel is also so keen on sketching the skies” says Patrick “I know with modern computers, and imagers like my good friends Pete Lawrence, and Damian Peach (both of whom live in Selsey as well, testament to the good skies it has), that sitting and drawing objects in the sky is a dying art, but Paul really does it so well, much better than me” Patrick is nothing if not modest in his achievements.

The television show has now moved on quite substantially from its roots. In 1957, shows were live to air, with some famous episodes, where Patrick and often keen amateur astronomers, would be trying to observe objects, and be clouded out for the entire show. Nowadays, whilst Patrick still opens and presents the show, a team of reporters, such as Pete Lawrence, Dr Chris Lintott (of Galaxy Zoo fame), Dr Chris North and Paul Abel, assist with outside broadcast and observing duties. “I don’t get to travel much, London is about as far as I can get now” says Patrick, who regularly attends the European Astrofest show, where queues of people hundreds of yards long will form, to see him and get him to sign one of the hundreds of books he has authored.

Aside from the honours and medals, including an honorary doctorate (“I never wanted to be a professional astronomer, as my maths is not very good”) which take up a glass cabinet on the wall next to where Patrick presents the TV show, is a BAFTA award. Like the British version of the Oscars, Patrick was presented this in 2002 by none other than Buzz Aldrin, another long-time friend. Patrick knows all of the Apollo astronauts well, having interviewed pretty much all of them, including Neil Armstrong not long after the lunar landing. “I think I am the only person alive who’s met the first man on the Moon, the first man in space and the first man to fly” says Patrick, having met Gagarin and Orville Wright. “It’s quite incredible that we went from the first flight to manned spaceflight and then on to the Moon in such a short period of time”

Patrick has no time at all for modern politicians and their meddling with science. “Kennedy was in a different league to modern politicians, whom I’d mostly like to send on a one way trip to Alpha Centauri if I could” He goes on to name various U.S presidents and British politicians who he’d probably actually pay for that ticket for. “Missions like Voyager, Apollo, Viking and the Hubble Space telescope show what we can achieve, but political will needs to be there, and I don’t think any of them really have it any more”. Werner Von Braun, who Patrick knew and liked immensely “could not see his ultimate dream through of sending a man to Mars, and that’s a shame”

Patrick’s own work, which included helping set up and saving the William Herschel Museum in Bath, where Uranus was discovered, and being on the planetary commission of the IAU (he also has his own asteroid), also involved helping set up one of the first robotic telescopes for schools. The Liverpool Telescope in La Palma.  “I was approached to chair a committee setting it up, and I am very proud of that” states Patrick “I think, if anything, my greatest achievement is that I have encouraged so many people, especially youngsters in to astronomy” If you ask most people in the UK, and even globally, his reach is as prolific as someone like Carl Sagan, they will tell you that it was “The Sky at Night” and Patrick’s infectious enthusiasm which got them in to this hobby.

“It’s wonderful that many professional astronomers come back and say it was me that got them inspired, even my co-presenter Chris Lintott, who was an enthusiastic youth at a school I gave a talk to” I asked Patrick if he considered, given his inability to use his own telescopes, using a robotic scope “not really, I love being out under the stars, at the eyepiece” a sadness briefly comes over him, but then in his usual style, he bounces back, announcing that lunch will be served up, and that we must all join him.

We have lunch together in his wood panelled dining room, and then the British Astronomical Associations lunar director Bruce Kingsley, (whom I’ve known for years, and who was one of the amazing team that worked on the lunar world record image, which Patrick also sat in on), , took me round the telescopes.

 The 15” Newtonian on its Fullerscope mount being one of the most photographed telescopes in the world in the “dome” at the back of the garden, being our first port of call. Balanced with weight lifting weights, it’s clearly a loved and well used scope that Patrick still encourages everyone to look through. My own personal favourite though is the Cooke refractor, recently expertly restored by Steve Collingwood of Meade’s distributors in the UK, it sits in an also recently restored run off roof shed, and looks as remarkable and pristine as any modern refractor, though suffering with colour fringing, the views having looked through it, are still breath-taking.

After the telescope tour, we go back in to find Patrick at his computer, the famous Woodstock typewriter on which he wrote so many of his books, sitting now, silently on a desk. He offers us drinks, and we chat about a plethora of topics from world politics to current deep space missions and the budget cuts impacting them. Time really does fly by with Patrick, and my stay, initially planned for only a few hours, quickly runs well in to the early evening. We bid each other farewell, and it’s clear Patrick has enjoyed, as he always seems to, having people who are as passionate about astronomy as he is, around.

55 years of the Sky at Night has inspired so many people to look up and observe the wonders of our universe. As Patrick himself says “nobody else has done anything quite the same, many people come and go in astronomy, but I’m still here” With his passion for astronomy, who’d bet that it won’t continue for more years yet. Only Patrick knows the answer to that, but, in a world where Knighthoods are given to people, who may not deserve it, Patrick truly deserves his. A defender of the skies for hopefully many more years to come.


Footnote - Added 10th Dec 2012
There's a lot of debate on social media forums, about the rights and wrongs of Patrick's political and cultural views. Whilst I am not someone who would ever think ill of the depearted, it's hopefully clear that any decent minded person would not in any way shape or form endorse or support any of his views w.r.t race/politics/immigration or the role of women in science/society. They were his views, and the views of a different generation. It's not to excuse them, it's just to explain I hope where and how they were formed.

What I have tried to convey in this story, is the man who inspired a generation of amateur and professional astronomers, and nothing else.

1 comment:

  1. That was a wonderful insight Nick. Thanks so much for sharing this.
    I hope one day to hear a small part of your recording of this.