Skip to main content

Patrick Moore: the autobiography – Patrick Moore ****

If you come from the UK, the late Patrick Moore will be very familiar as one of the first TV celebrities, even if you’ve never watched his astronomy show. A wonderful eccentric, complete with monocle, xylophone and huge enthusiasm, he presented the longest running TV show ever with a single presenter, the astronomy programme The Sky at Night, as well as writing a magnificent output of books on astronomy and juvenile science fiction.
His eccentricity comes through very quickly in the autobiography. Doing away with the convention that we need to learn of the upbringing to discover the person, he pretty well skips over everything before 1952, when at age 29, his first book was published. It’s as if this was when he was truly born. In the process he also dismisses something that would, in most autobiographies, be central to the “plot”. Moore lived with his mother until she died when he was in his late 50s. This might lead to suspicions about his emotional life – but these are dismissed by pointing out that Lorna, “the only girl for me” died in 1943. That same eccentricity is also reflected early on in his admitting to still using the same 1908 manual Woodstock typewriter he acquired at age 8. This reviewer treasurers a couple of letters written on that very same typewriter with Moore’s typical warmth in responding to a request from a total stranger. There’s even eccentricity in the review quote from the Times in the blurb of the book. “A bundle of oxymorons,” it says. Pardon?
What you find here is a fascinating mix of stories from Moore’s experience as probably the world’s leading professional amateur astronomer. (Confused? He calls himself an amateur because he’s not employed by an observatory or university, but he has made a living from his astronomy one way and another for most of his life – perhaps it would be better to call him a freelance.) There are tales of chasing eclipses around the world. The difficulties of running a conference with practically no resources. The sad story of the demise of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Experiences in early, live TV trying to do an astronomy show with little more than a camera and cardboard. The struggle to get a planetarium (and for that matter a scout troop) operating in sectarian Northern Ireland. And much more. You won’t always get the depth you want – Moore will often shy away from detail saying it’s of no importance – but there’s no doubting the enjoyment in sharing what he does let us see.
To criticize Sir Patrick’s book seems a bit like kicking a favourite pet, but its main fault is a lack of tight editing. A couple of simple examples – the phrasing could often do with a little tightening up, and some of the facts bear checking. For example we hear that for his first radio broadcast “the subject was about Greenwich Observatory” – just dropping that “about” would have smoothed things over. And on the same page we’re told that flying saucers were called that because a pilot, Kenneth Arnold, after a 1947 sighting, described them as being “flat like pie pans”. But in fact Arnold said that the UFOs moved erratically “like a saucer if you skip it across the water”, and the term was coined incorrectly by newspaper headline writers.
Some readers will also find aspects of the book offensive. Moore is totally honest about his attitude to much of the rest of the world, which can be summed up as “English is best” – and his politics are anything but populist. But to object to this misses the point. He wouldn’t be the celebrated eccentric he is were it not for the overall package – and to be honest, after years of British misery, with the nation blaming itself for everything from empire to the slave trade, it’s refreshing to see some national pride, something that the US and many other countries find no shame in displaying.
So switch off your political correctness checker, and join me in warmly enjoying a book that gives an insight into a unique and often delightful astronomical life.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…