In Conversation with Patrick:
“Blue Streak: Woomera should have been our great science base and space centre but funds were not forthcoming. Britain has made great contributions to space research and development but has not launched a rocket of its own of any consequence.”
“If nothing else goes wrong we’ll get them back but we have come to the end of our resources.” Patrick in an off-air conversation with a NASA controller at the time of the Apollo 13 crisis.
“The International Space Station may have been a mistake; an immediate lunar base would have been far more to the point.”
Wernher von Braun to Patrick: “Never launch anything with solid rocket motors.”
A Unique and Generous Man
In today’s celebrity culture some science popularisers seem to be protected by a gaggle of minders (publishers, publicists and agents). This was never the case with Patrick Moore. He was always accessible; always there at the end of the phone, always happy to receive visitors at his home in West Sussex. This article reflects on one such visit and hopefully captures Patrick’s unique generosity, openness and famous sense of hospitality. Future editions of Odyssey will pay tribute to the world’s most famous and popular astronomer but for now here is just one example amongst many thousands of how Patrick inspired an interest in astronomy and the sciences.
A Day to Remember – a Meeting with Sir Patrick Moore
They say you should never meet your heroes for fear of disappointment. Perhaps that’s true in most cases – especially in today’s celebrity culture when so many are clamouring for their fifteen minutes of fame – but not when it comes to Sir Patrick Moore. On a fine day in July this year my family and I visited Patrick at his home in Selsey and spent a memorable afternoon with the world’s most famous astronomer.
The visit was sparked by my son’s growing interest in astronomy and his wish to study Physics at university. I’d written to Patrick on the off-chance that a visit might be possible never really expecting to receive a favourable response, or indeed any sort of reply at all; but the very next day the phone had rung and Patrick had been on the other end of the line, extending an invitation for all four of us – myself, my wife Anne and our two children Alex and Natasha – to visit and have lunch.
We eventually arrived at mid-day having been delayed twice en route by unexpected traffic jams and a malfunctioning satnav. Twice we had phoned ahead to say we’d be late and on both occasions our host had been charming and gracious about the delay. In fact those two qualities were to epitomise both the man and the few hours we spent at Farthings, Patrick’s home now for over forty years. The thatched cottage and surrounding gardens are idyllically quiet, with a rural feel, a local microclimate helping to create a sensation that one might be in the south of France.
We were met at the door by Chris Doherty – Patrick’s long-time travelling companion, his charming wife and toddler son. Not knowing quite what to expect we were ushered into Patricks’ office, where we were immediately made to feel welcome. Although you are undoubtedly in the presence of scientific royalty, there is no standing on ceremony when you meet Patrick, and he quickly asked me to stop addressing him by his knighthood. “Please, not Sir Patrick….” We were soon joined by Patrick’s two cats, Jeanie and Ptolemy, who are clearly used to visitors and who are just as obviously adored by their owner.
Patrick’s study is smaller than it seems on The Sky at Night but is still large enough to contain a huge number of books, awards – including Patrick’s Knighthood and CBE – photos and certificates, along with Patrick’s cricket bat, a cherished memento of former campaigns. Our host was quick to point out that his skill on the cricket pitch had always revolved around his unorthodox bowling style, rather than his batting ability. There were moments when I felt as though we were in Galileo’s study and this impression was even more pronounced later in the visit when we were given the opportunity to see the “Selsey Telescopes,” as I have come to think of them.
As a long standing fan of Arthur C. Clarke I was fascinated to learn about Patrick’s early association with the inventor of the geosynchronous orbit, and their combined participation in the early days of the British Interplanetary Society as two of its leading “space cadets.” I was surprised to learn that Patrick thought the space elevator was “not one of Arthur’s better ideas.” I didn’t disagree, though the space elevator is surely an idea whose time will come.
Patrick told us: “The BIS was founded in 1933. When I joined some years later, Arthur Clarke was also a member and he came up to me and shook my hand at my first meeting. We struck up an immediate friendship that lasted the rest of our lives.
Patrick added: “The BIS didn’t have a regular H/Q in those days. Many of the first meetings were held at Caxton Hall. The Society closed down completely during the war. Other founding members included: Ken Gatland, Len Carter, Val Cleaver, Archibald Low, Phil Cleator (the first BIS President) and Ray Smith, who provided illustrations for a number of Arthur’s books.”
The visit offered a chance to quiz Patrick on all manner of subjects, from his views on Wernher Von Braun – “a decent man with a sense of humour” – to his meetings with Einstein and Orville Wright: “Neil Armstrong and Orville Wright never met, though they could have,” Patrick told us, clearly delighting in the historical possibilities of such an encounter. Orville, we learned from Patrick, “had done very little flying” after the ground breaking events at Kitty Hawk, having been saddened by the use of aircraft in warfare.
Other luminaries who have crossed orbits with Patrick include Armstrong’s fellow Apollo astronauts; the first man in space Yuri Gagarin; and Brian May – the Queen guitarist – now Dr Brian May, a highly qualified and well respected astrophysicist. As for the chance of a human walking on Mars, Patrick thought this unlikely in my own lifetime but something that Alex and Natasha might live to see. But not until we “have solved the radiation problem” that will inevitably arise in transit to Mars and on the surface of the planet itself. The sun was also responsible Patrick felt for the problems associated with global warming, rather than any man-made causes.
Patrick was of course the very first editor of the Society’s popular magazine, Spaceflight. Having recently written an article for the magazine on the difference between the future foreseen in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the current reality of space travel, I was intrigued to discover Patrick’s views on the subject. I was not at all surprised when he offered a different perspective, suggesting that the collapse of the Soviet Union had blown space exploration off-course by helping to extinguish the Space Race. It’s an intriguing idea and the starting point perhaps for an alternative history that Clarke’s successor’s in the realm of speculative fiction might wish to explore.
Talk inevitably turned to Dark Matter which Patrick felt was real enough but there was less enthusiasm for Dark Energy. I was left with the impression that a variation of Einstein’s cosmological constant was likely to emerge in the future, proving that Einstein had been right even when he’d been wrong!
Throughout the conversation Patrick’s sense of humour was never far from the surface, as when he recited the famous ditty about von Braun: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.”
We talked also about the super massive star – nicknamed “The Monster” – whose discovery had been reported in the press the week before our visit, and which would feature on the next Sky at Night, a star believed to be 265 times bigger than our own sun and millions of times brighter.
Patrick, of course, is an expert on the Moon and when Alex asked him about the possibility of water on or below its surface he seemed very dubious, a view that was borne out only a few days later by a study undertaken by US researchers and subsequently published in Science.
Discussions over lunch weren’t all about science and astronomy; there was a lively debate about Formula 1 and the prospects of Hamilton and Button securing victory in the following days Hungarian Grand Prix.
Apart from meeting Patrick himself the highlight of the visit was a tour of the telescopes in the garden of Farthings, a location immediately recognisable from the programme which Patrick has been hosting now for over half a century. Patrick’s first telescope stands in the hall (a three inch brass refractor supported by a wooden tripod, which the young Patrick Moore bought when he was eleven years old), still an impressive instrument and taller than any of his visitors. All the exterior telescopes are protected by cowlings of some description and stand pointing at the sky waiting for the arrival of The Sky at Night team and the next broadcast.
My abiding memories of the visit are the peaceful, tranquil surroundings and of being in the presence of someone who has been involved in some of the most exciting scientific events of the 20th century, often in the company of the very figures who shaped and directed those events.
We left with three signed copies of Patrick’s books, including his autobiography, which now occupy pride of place on Alex’s bookshelf in our own home, and a feeling that we had just spent a lovely afternoon with a very special man and his family. To have received such hospitality and to have been treated to such entertaining and intelligent company was very humbling.
For four Londoners, Farthings was an oasis of calm and tranquility, so much so that we were all sorry to return to the light polluted skies of the city at the end of the visit. Indeed on leaving Farthings we delayed our return journey long enough to watch the sunset on Selsey beach and reflect on what a privileged afternoon we had spent in the company of Patrick and his family.
In an age when some science communicators are distant and unapproachable, Patrick Moore is inspiring and accessible, bringing to mind the famous and oft quoted line from Kipling: “If you can….walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”
It was an afternoon none of us will ever forget. Thank you, Sir Patrick!
Mark Stewart, FBIS
BIS Honorary Archival Librarian/ Editor (Odyssey)
(“A Day to Remember – a Meeting with Sir Patrick Moore,” first published in abbreviated form in Spaceflight magazine February 2011)