Sir Patrick Moore (1923 -2012): Our Travel Guide to the Universe

Tribute published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 13 Dec 2012:

Sir Patrick Moore (1923 -2012): A colourful journey fuelled by enthusiasm

Sir Patrick Moore (1923 -2012): A colourful journey fuelled by enthusiasm

The first ever book on astronomy I owned as a kid, a pocket guide to the night sky, was written by an Englishman named Patrick Moore.

Armed with the tattered book, I joined night sky observation sessions of the Young Astronomers’ Association, formed in the mid 1980s.

Hormones-on-legs that we all were at the time, we were interested in ‘heavenly bodies’ at both ends of the telescope. But we couldn’t have had a better guide to the celestial wonders than the erudite yet eminently accessible Patrick Moore.

Indeed, Sir Patrick Moore, who died on December 9 aged 89, was the world’s best known public astronomer for nearly half a century.

Although he wrote over 70 books on astronomy and space, it was his television work that made him such a household name. He hosted a monthly TV show, called The Sky at Night, demystifying the night sky and space travel for ordinary people.

The show started on BBC Television in April 1957 – six months before the Space Age dawned. For 55 years, the low-budget show has chronicled highs and lows of the entire the Space Age and brought the wonders of the night sky into the living rooms of millions.

Sir Patrick presented it for 55 and six months, doing a total of 720 episodes. He missed it just once, in July 2004, when he was hospitalized for a few days with food poisoning.

The show has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running programme with the same presenter in TV history. It’s unlikely to be broken.

He was essentially an amateur astronomer, albeit a serious and passionate one. He did some original mapping of the Moon’s surface in his younger days (used later by the both American and Russian space programmes), and headed a planetarium in Northern Ireland for a while in the 1960s, but he was largely self taught in the subject, and did mostly optical observations with his own telescopes.

BBC Sky at Night - a long innings
Public Imagination

Sir Patrick’s practical knowledge of astronomical observations and his brand of humour – together with his lovable eccentricity — made the TV show interesting to people from all walks of life while also those engaging seriously pursuing amateur astronomy.

But Sir Patrick insisted that it was the subject, not his style. When the show reached 50 years and over 650 episodes in early 2007, Sir Patrick explained its enduring appeal: “Astronomy’s a fascinating subject. You look up… you can’t help getting interested and it’s there. We’ve tried to bring it to the people…it’s not me, it’s the appeal of the subject.”

Over the years, the show has had some stellar guests. It included famous astronomers like Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan, Bernard Lovell and Martin Rees, rocket builder Wernher von Braun, and Moon landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Sir Patrick was centrally involved in the BBC’s coverage of the Moon Landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is remembered as an excellent interviewer who brought out the best in his guests. It was mind-stimulating TV that was entertaining but not dumbed down.

One repeat guest was his long-standing friend Sir Arthur C Clarke, whom he first met through the British Interplanetary Society in the 1940s. They were both ‘space cadets’ when few people took space travel seriously.

In a tribute to the world’s most enduring astronomy show, Sir Arthur said in 2007: “Sky at Night has not been just a gee-whiz show of rockets, satellites and other expensive toys deployed by rich nations trying to outsmart each other. At its most basic, it’s a show about exploring that great laboratory within easy access to anyone, anywhere on the planet: the night sky.”

He added: “By the time the Space Age dawned, Patrick was well on his way to becoming the best known public astronomer in the world. The Sky at Night only consolidated a reputation that was well earned through endless nights of star-gazing, and many hours of relentlessly typing an astonishing volume of books, papers and popular science articles.”

In the 50th anniversary programme, broadcast in April 2007, Sir Patrick travelled back in time to see their first recording. He talked to his earlier self about astronomy back in 1957, and discussed how things have changed in half a century.

He then time travelled to 2057 where the ‘virtual’ Patrick, saved in the BBC computer, is celebrating 100 years of making The Sky at Night and talked to Dr Brian May about the discovery of life on Mars.

That same month, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the professional body that has sole authority to name celestial bodies –designated an asteroid as “57424 Caelumnoctu” in honour of the show. The number refers to the first broadcast date, and the name is Latin for “The Sky at Night”.

Earlier, the IAU had named asteroid No 2602 as “Moore” in his honour.

In 2001, the year he was knighted by the Queen for “services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting”, he became the only amateur astronomer ever to be inducted as an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. He also received a BAFTA Award (the British Oscar) for his broadcasting accomplishments.

Many of the world’s leading professional astronomers have acknowledged being inspired by Patrick Moore’s books and TV shows.

That includes the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, FRS, who said in 2005: “I’m one of multitudes who owe their enthusiasm for astronomy to Patrick Moore. As a schoolboy I viewed, on the flickering screen of our family’s newly acquired black and white TV, his commentaries on the first Sputnik. I was transfixed…”

Sir Patrick’s influence extended well beyond the western world. Tributes have come in from everywhere.

Dr Nalin Samarasinha, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, USA – and one of the very few Lankans to have an asteroid named after himself — said: “Certainly, I read some of his early books in the mid 1970s when I was an A/L student at Nalanda College, Colombo. They could be classified as an inspiration as well as a source of knowledge. This was in the era when there was no Internet and one needed to read books to learn about the field!”

Thilina Heenatigala, Project Coordinator of Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) that popularises astronomy, said: “He was a true ambassador of astronomy, bringing the Universe to the public. His work inspired me both as a kid and as an adult.”

Countering Pseudoscience

Sir Patrick used his show also to counter pseudoscience beliefs such as the popular association of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) with alien beings. He sometimes investigated what he called ‘Flying Saucerers’ – people who were genuinely confused by natural or man-made objects in the sky that were unfamiliar and, therefore, presumed mysterious.

He showed how UFOs had nothing to do with alien creatures. Yet he believed in the prospects of life elsewhere in the universe.

He was once asked what he might say if a real Flying Saucer landed on his front lawn, and a little green man emerged. His reply: “I know exactly what I would say: ‘Good afternoon. Tea or coffee? Then do please come with me to the nearest television studio…’”.

He noted in his 2003 autobiography: “There is nothing I would like better than to interview a Martian, a Venusian or even a Saturnian, but somehow I don’t think that it is likely to happen.”

If that particular wish didn’t come to pass, Sir Patrick couldn’t complain. On and off the screen, he met an extraordinary array of famous Earthlings. Among them were Orville Wright, the very first man to fly a heavier-than-air machine, Albert Einstein (whose violin playing he accompanied on the piano), and Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, respectively the first man and women to travel to space.

Once, when Tereshkova was visiting London, Sir Patrick chaired a major meeting in the Festival Hall. A tough journalist asked her: “What qualities would you look for in a man going to the Moon?” The cosmonaut, who spoke good English, answered with a charming smile: “Do you mean if I was going too?”

A younger Patrick Moore presenting BBC Sky at Night show around 1960

A younger Patrick Moore presenting BBC Sky at Night show around 1960

Terrestrial Pursuits

As an active astronomer, TV host and public speaker, Sir Patrick travelled the world for over half a century, visiting all seven continents including Antarctica. He was especially fond of chasing total eclipses of the sun, one of the most spectacular events in Nature.

When not star gazing, he pursued many other interests. He freely admitted to being unathletic and uncoordinated, but was an avid cricketer, turning up for his home town Selsey’s Cricket Club well into his seventies.

Once, when asked on TV about his definition of Hell, he replied: “Bowling to a left-hander, on a dead wicket, with a Pakistani umpire.”

He also played the piano and xylophone until arthritis ruled it out. He never married because his fiancée was killed by a bomb during World War II, and lived in a rural house with his pet cats. He was fond of making home-made wine, for which he said “you can use almost anything, within reason” as raw material. Rose petal was his favourite.

Thank you, Sir Patrick, for being our genial guide to the night sky and space travel for over half a century.

Happy cosmic journeys!

Sir Patrick Moore tribute by Nalaka Gunawardene, Ceylon Today, 13 Dec 2012

Sir Patrick Moore tribute by Nalaka Gunawardene, Ceylon Today, 13 Dec 2012

Buzz Aldrin at 80: Still blasting off imagination everyday

Moonwalker No 2

This is one of history’s most famous photographs – and also one that is frequently misidentified. The man behind the space mask is a pioneer Moon walker – but it’s not Neil Armstrong. It’s the Buzz Aldrin, the second Man on the Moon.

According to space historians, all the famous photos from the first Moon landing are actually of Aldrin, with Armstrong reflected in the visor. This is an occupational hazard for those who take photos!

Buzz, who celebrated his 80th birthday on January 20, remains active and publicly engaged as he has been for most of the past 40 years since the first Moon landing in July 1969.

I’m following Buzz on his Twitter feed, from which I find that he’s just back from a trip to Antarctica with a National Geographic cruise, was at the premiere for the movie Avatar in mid December, and is now busy promoting his latest autobiography, Magnificent Desolation.

On his 80th birthday, Buzz asked fans to donate US$8 ot 80 to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. And he will soon launch my iPhone App, Buzz Aldrin Portal to Science and Space Exploration.

This contrasts with Neil Armstrong, who is notoriously shy. He rarely speaks in public, turns down all media interviews and has also refused autograph requests since 1994.

Trained as an engineer, the two-time space traveller Buzz has been keeping up with new media pretty well. He has his own website, and launched his own YouTube channel only a month ago, where we can see his latest broadcast and film appearances. Through these and other means, he continues to promote causes like space exploration, science education and nurturing imagination.

To mark his 80th birthday, we present some of the many Buzz Aldrin videos available online.

First, here’s the moment when Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, in a partial restoration by NASA Video

Here’s the DVD Promo Overview of the latest Buzz video:

On the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin shares his experience and predicts where man will go in the future. (Assciated Press video, 20 July 2009)

Buzz has long years of close association with popular culture. For example, the popular space ranger character Buzz Lightyear, in Pixar’s Toy Story movie series, is named after him. Apparently the film’s makers felt that he has “the coolest name of any astronaut.”

NASA video: Follow Buzz Lightyear on Spaceship Discovery

Finally, for comic relief, here’s the 2003 interview Buzz did with Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) in the British comedy series Ali G in da USA, during which Ali G referred to him as Buzz Lightyear:

P.S.: If you prefer a more detached look at the man and his career:
The Guardian, July 2009: The Man who fell to Earth

Lights, Camera, Apollo: Did NASA and Hollywood co-produce Moon Landings?

Is this how it really happened? Just kidding!

Is this how it really happened? Just kidding!

When NASA announced last week that they were working with a leading digital imaging company in Hollywood to remaster the original Apollo 11 Moon walk video footage, I told myself: that’s one more cannon to the conspiracy theorists!

Everyone would welcome a quality improvement in those murky, grainy moving images capturing humanity’s grand achievement. But the choice of Lowry Corporation, best known for restoring old Hollywood films, could fuel the fire of conspiracy theorists who argue that the entire Moon landing was faked by NASA with the connivance and participation of Hollywood. They believe that the entire Apollo programme – that landed people on the moon six times between 1969 and 1972 – was staged on a movie set or secret military base.

This link didn’t bother Richard Nafzger, the NASA engineer who oversaw television processing at the ground-tracking sites during the Apollo 11 mission, and now involved in their restoration. “This company is restoring historic video. It mattered not to me where the company was from,” Nafzger was quoted as saying.

Technically and officially, NASA is right. The US space agency has always dismissed the conspiracy theorists, and not spent much time discussing the outrageous idea. As it says on NASA website: “The Apollo Moon landings were among the most completely documented and observed events in history. Moon rocks have been examined by scientists from all over the world, not just the U.S. Video special effects were in their infancy in the late 60’s so that faking a landing on the Moon would probably have been more difficult than actually going there, and it seems highly unlikely that the hundreds or even thousands of people who would have had to be involved in such a conspiracy would have kept it a secret for so long.”

In another place, NASA website says Moon rocks and common sense prove Apollo astronauts really did visit the Moon.

Err, Wasn't Spielberg only 23 at the time...?

Err, Wasn't Spielberg only 23 at the time...?

Independent scientists point out that it would be impossible for tens of thousands of NASA employees and Apollo contractors to keep such a whopping secret for almost four decades. Tell that to those who are deeply suspicious of anything to do with governments, who historically don’t have the best record for transparency and full disclosure!

So the conspiracy theory lingers. Like many other crazy ‘theories’, it has spread rapidly with the growth of the Internet. It’s really an old one: even at the time Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, a few people refused to believe it as it apparently conflicted with their religious beliefs.

The Moon Hoax, as it’s popularly called, accuses NASA of manufacturing, destroying, or tampering with evidence — including photos, telemetry tapes, transmissions, and rock samples; and that the deception continues to this day. These theorists concede that the Apollo launches did take place. But instead of going to the Moon, which they say was technologically impossible at the time, the astronauts just orbited the Earth for a few days while NASA carefully fed the media with manufactured images. And then they returned to a heroes’ welcome!

Before we proceed, let’s agree that there is independent, verifiable and irrefutable evidence that the Moon landings did take place. Here are a few online sources for details:
Bad Astronomy website by Phil Plaits
Did We Really Land on the Moon? Suggestions for Science Teachers from Rational Inquiry
Wikipedia entry: collaborative discussion with multiple sources cited
Clavius.org website

My curiosity in conspiracy theories stems from my interest in popular culture. In this instance, I’m intrigued to note how moving images have fuelled the Moon Hoax theory in a number of ways. A cornerstone in the doubters’ argument is that NASA’s photos and videos from the moon contained ‘suspicious anomalies’ (all of which, by the way, have been satisfactorily explained by scientists.)

Superb entertainment, but it was just that...

Superb entertainment, but it was just that...

Some believe that these theories inspired the 1978 movie Capricorn One, where NASA fakes a Mars landing on a military base on Earth, and then goes to desperate lengths to cover it up. It’s entirely possible that some people can’t discern fact from fiction. Or why allow facts to get in the way of a damn good story?

In 1980, the Flat Earth Society was one of the first to accuse NASA of faking the Moon landings, arguing that these events were actually staged in Hollywood studios and based on a script written by Arthur C. Clarke! Another group suggested that acclaimed film director Stanley Kubrick, who co-wrote with Clarke the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, was strong-armed into shooting much of the Apollo footage.

Sir Arthur Clarke, with whom I worked for over 20 years, used to laugh these off. He’d enjoyed a ring side seat when he joined Walter Cronkite in covering Apollo 11 and later missions for CBS News.

At one point in the early 1990s, he wrote to the NASA Administrator, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, saying: “Dear Sir, On checking my records, I see that I have never received any payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise, you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.”

Of course, he never received – nor expected – a reply. But when media reports about this appeared, some with no sense of humour considered it further ‘proof’ of a cover-up!

And here’s another connection: Peter Hyams, who directed Capricorn One, went on to direct the movie adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, which was released in 1984.

More seriously, in later years Sir Arthur was concerned that at one point a few years ago, millions of Americans harboured doubts whether the Moon landings actually took place. That indicated a failure of the education system to produce people with critical thinking abilities, he said.

The conspiracies received a boost when, on 15 February 2001, the Fox News TV network aired
Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?. Hosted by X-Files actor Mitch Pileggi, this hour-long, sensational documentary peddled what it called eerie “inconsistencies” in NASA’s Apollo images and TV footage. Among them: no blast craters are visible under the landing modules; shadows intersect instead of running parallel, suggesting the presence of an unnatural light source; and a planted American flag appears to ripple in a breeze although there’s no wind on the moon.

It concluded that the whole Apollo Moon landings were faked in the Nevada desert because, cccording to the conspiracy theorists, NASA did not have the technical capability of going to the Moon, but pressure due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union forced them to fake it. Fox TV did preface the programme with a notice saying: “The following programme deals with a controversial subject. The theories expressed are not the only possible interpretation. Viewers are invited to make a judgement based on all available information.” But skeptics felt Fox didn’t do enough to provide a minimum level of balance in their discussion.

Warning: This is a funny cartoon and not meant to be taken seriously

Warning: This is a funny cartoon and not meant to be taken seriously

The documentary’s ‘evidence’ has since been refuted point by point. NASA has also dismissed the documentary’s claims. It prompted Sir Arthur Clarke to protest to his long-time friend Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox TV network, for peddling unscientific nonsense.

Rather than being a ‘true believer’, Fox TV may have been trying to boost its audience ratings. But others in the moving images industry apparently take the matter very seriously. Among them is the film-maker Bart Sibrel. His aggressive interview tactics once provoked astronaut Buzz Aldrin (second man to walk on the Moon) to punch him in the face in a 2002 encounter.

“I don’t want to call attention to the individuals who are trying to promote and shuffle off this hoax on people,” Aldrin told CNN in a recent interview. “I feel sorry for the gullible people who’re going to go along with them. I guess it’s just natural human reaction to want to be a part of ‘knowing something that somebody doesn’t know.’ But it’s misguided. It’s just a shame.”

One of the strongest rebuttals of the Moon hoax on TV has come from the Mythbusters series of popular science programmes produced by Beyond Television Productions, originally for the Discovery Channel. The series features special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who use basic elements of the scientific method to test the validity of various rumors, myths, movie scenes, internet videos and news stories in popular culture.

In August 2008, they tackled a number of pervasive myths associated with the Moon landing, debunking them one by one. To film the episode, Adam, Jamie and the rest of the Mythbusters team visited the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. A team of Marshall scientists helped the Mythbusters with several of their tests. Here are two excerpts:

Mythbusters probe the ‘Moonlanding photo hoax’

Mythbusters investigate ‘Moonwalk hoax’:


Read Space.com coverage about how Mythbusters busted the Moon Hoax.

Read Popular Mechanics coverage on the Mythbusters exposure

As the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing passes, the scientific community and rationalists will have to make some hard choices. How much more time and energy must they expend countering such wildly fanciful theories and fantasies? In a world that still has a (dwindling?) number of people who believe in more ancient concepts like the Flat Earth theory, is it really surprising that the Space Age would inspire its own share of modern-day myths?

No matter what the scientists say and how overwhelming the evidence is, conspiracy theories will always believe what they want. Often their convictions border on a blind faith – and as Arthur C Clarke was fond of saying (in relation to religions), one definition of faith is ‘believing in what you know isn’t true!’.

In a pluralistic world, people choose what to believe in

In a pluralistic world, people choose what to believe in

Then there is simple demographics. The total world population in 1969 was 3.6 billion. Today, it has surpassed 6.7 billion. This means nearly half of the people alive today were not even born when Neil and Buzz stepped on to the Moon. At 43, even I have only a headline memory of Apollo 11, even if it’s a strong one.

NASA itself is well aware of this. “As the number of people who were not yet born at the time of the Apollo program increases, the number of questions [about the moon landings] also may increase,” NASA said in a statement on the eve of the anniversary. “Conspiracy theories are always difficult to refute because of the impossibility of proving a negative.”

Perhaps what the Moon Hoax debate really needs is what Sir Arthur Clarke once proposed as a response to the obsession with UFOs and alien abductions: a decade or so of benign neglect. Conspiracy theorists and myth-makers thrive on counter-arguments and debate. When they don’t get it for long enough, they’ll probably run out of steam.

Meanwhile, networks like Fox News should stick to making entertainment programming that is labeled as such. Who can find fault with creations like The Simpsons?