Stargazers mourn death of Patrick Moore
He was an amateur, not a trained scientist. But Sir Patrick Moore’s eccentric enthusiasm popularised astronomy. What’s the true value of someone who can make a difficult subject engaging?
At the age of 13, Patrick Moore presented his first paper about the moon to the British Astronomical Association. The keen amateur astronomer was already their youngest member. But when he turned his passion for all things planetary into a subject for television shows, he reached a much wider audience. His 50 year broadcasting career lasted right up until his death, this week, at 89.
The Sky at Night was the longest running British programme with the same presenter in television history, and Monday saw an outpouring of affection and gratitude from those who caught the stargazing bug from Moore’s show.
‘You taught me to look up,’ tweeted Sue Perkins, a comedian and presenter. Actor and writer Mark Gatiss, meanwhile, shared memories of ‘all those freezing childhood nights with my battered refractor inspired by his wonderful eccentricity.’
He was compared to Sir David Attenborough for his ability to popularise scientific knowledge and infect generations with the spirit of inquiry. Attenborough has spent 60 years presenting astonishing programmes about the natural world, but he started with a Natural Sciences degree and is not a zoologist.
Historian Simon Schama and classicist Mary Beard are a different type of expert: their hit TV shows are made while they occupy prestigious professorial posts. But they have also been part of a powerful modern phenomenon: spreading knowledge that would once have remained the preserve of academics through broadcasting, and often through bestselling books.
The fans lamenting Moore’s passing are not all scientists. Of course some, like Brian Cox, are celebrity boffins themselves. Cox is on the glamorous cusp of two successful careers: he brings rock star kudos to explaining physics. So what is the value of introducing future writers and comedians – any of us in fact – to an academic discipline if it won’t give us our future career?
Purists and populists
Some argue that science has democratic roots, its various disciplines pursued by enlightened individuals who were often amateurs – and often engaged on other, equally important matters at the same time. Benjamin Franklin, for example, managed to conduct important experiments on electricity while bringing about American independence. In fact, science has only been a professional career for a little more than a century.
To some, particularly in academia, all this popularity cheapens and distorts, by simplification, the discoveries and theories hard-won in the laboratory or library. The word ‘amateur’ has, to them, rightly become a description used with disdain and disapproval. But for others, broadcasters like Patrick Moore bring not just knowledge, but also joy to millions for whom whole worlds – galaxies even – would otherwise remain closed.
- Would you like to invent something or make a groundbreaking discovery?
- The BBC, which broadcastThe Sky At Night, was formed to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. Is that the right order? Are these even the right verbs?
- Do you have a favourite popular scientist (or historian)? Write a profile of their life and career.
- In interviews, Moore said he remained devoted to his favourite subject, the moon. Research why it might have been such a lifelong source of wonder.
Some People Say...
“One person’s polymath is another person’s dilettante.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Well I’m more of a lab rat than a budding genius.
- Ha! Don’t be so sure. There might be an academic subject that you find a new enthusiasm for if you realise that it can be an ‘unofficial’ pursuit. And these days, many people have more than one career, so it’s good to be open-minded when something unexpected fires your imagination.
- OK, but having a craze for something isn’t the same as being successful.
- Very true. And it’s good to be sensible. But there is always a shortage of people with scientific literacy. Nothing is wasted time or effort: even if, for example, you end up working in the media, imagine how satisfying it could be to explain and popularise complex, important ideas yourself.
- Prestige, acclaim, praise, recognition, fame: all the positive reputation earned by an outstanding and admired achievement.
- From the Latin, literally a lover of a subject or pursuit. In modern usage, it means someone who is keen on a sport, art, skill or academic discipline without becoming professional.
- When used as an adjective, this means someone who has turned their enthusiasm into a formal career. A slightly different traditional meaning would designate only some careers as ‘professions’ rather than trades: for example medicine or the law.
- Simon Schama
- Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York, he has also taught at both Cambridge and Oxford.
- Mary Beard
- Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and an expert on Ancient Rome.
- Benjamin Franklin
- Although he started out quite humbly as a printer, Franklin moved from publishing newsletters and newspapers to becoming one of the most important politicians in America as it fought to become independent from the British. His scientific investigations include a famous episode flying a kite during a storm to prove that lightning is electricity.
- Someone whose expertise includes several different areas. A ‘Renaissance man’ or woman.
- Someone who takes an interest in more than one area of the arts or academia – or science – without pursuing anything with real commitment. Not a compliment.