News comes of the passing of Sir Patrick Moore, the great British amateur astronomer and author at age 89. The Independent article linked here and the wiki give a general overview of the remarkable man’s extraordinary accomplishments.
As the article states, “Moore was perhaps the last in the great British tradition of significant contributions to science by distinguished amateurs, and was fiercely proud of his amateur status. ” Indeed, astronomy remains one of the few areas where even today, amateurs (e.g., Herschel and Lowell) routinely make significant contributions to the field even beyond the discovery of new comets that bear their name. All that is required is curiosity to wonder what’s out there and a desire to go looking for it.
The ultimate expression of an explorer’s heart and science nerd’s passion, I came to space exploration and amateur astronomy in the mid seventies with the waning of the Apollo program, the Viking and Voyager missions and in part, as a result of the passion of Sir Patrick Moore.
In our adolescent, pre-vehicular days, my friend and I became immersed in the wonderful world of backyard astronomy. I’d strap my budget refractor telescope (think Gallileo) on my bicycle and pedal up the hill to my friend’s house where we set up for the night.
We’d spend the night dutifully searching the mostly summer sky in an attempt to find objects across the universe that we’d only seen in pictures or read about in books, all under the not yet too bright glare of suburban mercury and sodium haze light pollution. Here in the northern hemisphere with a limited field of vision, modest equipment and a suburban sky we were able to locate exotic and far away objects like M31 (aka the Andromeda galaxy, 2.2 million light years away), M13 (the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules) and M57 (the Ring Nebula). Intergalatic time travel on a teenagers budget.
A big part of that effort was a wee tome that proved again and again indispensible: Patrick Moore’s “The Pocket Guide to Astronomy” ISBN 0-671-25309-3. All of 144 pages bound in the finest vinyl. Time and time again, Moore’s book was the go-to source because it was easy to carry with you, clear and concise. Perfect for the occasional backyard stargazing party or to throw in a backpack. It still is. Also perfect for kindling the passion for scientific exploration in a nerdy adolescent.
Far more than a mere collection of handy star charts, Moore’s book was a concise overview of the physics of astronomy, astrophysics, then modern cosmology, the solar system and planetary exploration and a history of modern astronomy. Not bad for under 150 pages that you could fit in a breast pocket. Even with far greater resources today, I often go back to this small book when looking for reference information (like when a particular meteor shower will occur) simply because in Moore’s book, I know where it is and it will take me all of 30 seconds to locate it.
One of a kind, he will be missed. Thanks, Sir Patrick, RIP.