It was a long journey to school, by car, then train and, finally, a walk. In winter months, for added adventure and to uphold the somewhat antiquated view of building character, we still wore shorts, leading to the little known delight of snowball fights with bare legs. As a seven year old, it was a long trip, but enlivened on occasion by a rare sighting: the astronomer, Patrick Moore, distinctive with his portly figure and monocle, would ride the same train as us.
I’m not sure how well Sir Patrick was known overseas, but here in the UK he was a very much loved public figure, eccentric to the extreme, famed not only for presenting The Sky At Night (the longest running span of presenting by a single host in the world, for over fifty years), but also for his xylophone playing and, particularly, for being the only man in public life to wear a monocle. He also spoke fast, often attaining speeds of three hundred words a minute, but every one of them captivating.
So, this weekend, surrounded by friends and family, Sir Patrick passed away, at the age of eighty nine. A man who had inspired not one, but every generation of scientists and astronomers as well as being a seemingly permanent part of our cultural landscape.
Sir Patrick was an amateur in the very best sense of the word: he never had any formal training in astronomy and clung to his status with pride. He was authoritative, prolific, respected and widely known, with a clear passion that, matched with superb communication skills, made him unusual indeed, a source of great inspiration and much fondness.
Inspiration is important in learning: the inspiration that drives us to learn new skills, that causes us to question why things are as they are, it is inspiration that causes us to leave what is familiar and venture into our own ignorance. Children are inspired by sportsmen and women, inspired to train, to try harder, to run longer, to make the effort. Adults are inspired by children who face illness or tragedy with dignity. We are all inspired by people who have the courage to stand up to oppression or persecution, or who do what is right, say what is right, despite the consequences.
I don’t know if we can learn to inspire people ourselves, but we certainly learn through inspiration.
As a child, i remember plucking up the courage to approach Sir Patrick (or just plain ‘Patrick’ as he was back then) to ask for an autograph, willingly given. Back then he was a larger than life figure towering over me. Today, he still towers, but today i respect him for his contribution to his field and for his professionally amateur status, and for his ability to inspire.
Brian May, one of our other national institutions who revels in the duality of rock star and astrophysicist, paid the most fitting tribute: ‘There will never be another Patrick Moore, but we were lucky enough to get one‘.