The superstar stargazer and his room with a view

The Wandering Astronomer
October 6, 2000

Patrick Moore was a media phenomenon before today's superstars were even conceived. His style in front of the camera is marked by that unforgettable diction, minimal dry-cleaning expenditure and unbounded enthusiasm. It has made The Sky at Night the longest-running show on television apart from the news. But although Moore is keen to stress his lack of formal education (he has honorary degrees but no real one), his scholarship in astronomy is immense and this collection of pieces by him is a fascinating tour of his interests.

Moore knows the surface of the Moon as well as we might know our local high street, and not surprisingly most of the essays concern the solar system. The first is about the Moon itself, and takes us straight to several Moore hobby-horses. The subject is the Moon's atmosphere, which we now know to consist of a minute presence of single atoms barely distinguishable from the vacuum of deep space. But as Moore tells it, this is merely the conclusion of a lengthy tale that allows us to explore the history of astronomy and the extraordinary beliefs about the universe that in some cases persist, in the teeth of evidence, to the present day. W. H. Pickering, a skilled planetary observer, thought he had observed a thick lunar atmosphere as well as swarming insects on the Moon's surface, while in 1822 a German astronomer thought he had seen a full-scale city on its surface.

With some 40 essays in the book, not all can be of this high standard. The tale of the variable star Mira is interesting but has been told often. Moore has little to add to existing accounts. By contrast, he is most interesting when he explores some corner of the sky that offers unusual treats to the visitor. One essay is devoted to the star Alshain, which seems like an average point of light until old records are studied. Then it becomes apparent that it must have faded over the centuries. Stars whose brightness fluctuates over time - as opposed to variable stars with established behaviour patterns -are rare but may also include Castor, one of the twins of Gemini, as well as Megrez, one of the stars of the Plough.

Moore is also at home in describing the often amazing things that happen when newspapers and other media come face to face with things astronomical. A classic case was the media's discovery in 1995 that the Sun spends part of the year in the constellation Opiuchus - so anyone born between November 30 and December 17 ought to have Opiuchus as their star sign. Moore is not one to shed a tear at a crisis in astrology, but, as he says, the alleged "news items" on the matter contained no fact not known to Ptolemy, who died 1,800 years ago.

His own contributions to astronomy are many, and cover its vocabulary as well as its content. He claims, astoundingly, to have been the first person to describe the bright stars Deneb, Vega and Altair as the "summer triangle" because of the way they dominate the summer sky in the northern hemisphere. The term is now in universal use. He also observed Janus, an unknown satellite of Saturn, in 1966 at the same time as Audouin Dollfus in Paris - but failed to announce the sighting, so Dollfus is in the record books as its discoverer.

Despite the thousands of hours he has spent at the eyepiece of a highly traditional telescope - there are no charge-coupled devices or computer controls in his Sussex observatory - Moore loves the new knowledge of the universe that high technology is bringing us. One essay is on Champollion , the ambitious space probe planned for mid-decade and designed to return samples of comet material to the Earth. He is also fascinated by our new ability to see detail on the surfaces of asteroids, both from spacecraft and with powerful ground-based radars. Perhaps in a future volume he will tell us his views on the names of history's great lovers being applied to surface features on the asteroid Eros.

Moore takes an uncompromising line on cranks of all kinds, but one feels that these types would find it much more acceptable to be savaged by one of the great English eccentrics than to receive some chilly dismissal from a university professor. One chapter of this book consists simply of excerpts from newspapers, which seem to lack any form of judgement about astronomical claims. A local newspaper on the Isle of Wight, for example, published an article saying that a comet 20 times the size of Halley's was going to strike the local council offices on February 14 1995. Neither are such faux pas limited to comparatively modest publications, as a piece of creationism in The Daily Telegraph shows.

In the same essay, Moore points out that newspapers often do not need to exaggerate to get a spectacular tale from astronomy. The Telegraph also revealed that United States astronaut Alan Shepard cost himself a fortune by refusing to reveal the brand of golf ball he struck while on the Moon: the grateful manufacturer would have paid handsomely. Elsewhere, woodpeckers are eating the Space Shuttle, radio-astronomers are getting excited by signals that turn out to come from microwave ovens, and some Yemenis are suing Nasa for trespassing on Mars. They came from the red planet a few thousand years ago and still own the place.

Despite his interest in these oddities, Moore's real love is the night sky and our knowledge of it. This volume is not terrific value for money compared with some of its glossier competitors, but anyone who likes Moore's style will enjoy it as a bedside book for cloudy nights.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES .

The Wandering Astronomer

Author - Patrick Moore
ISBN - 0 7503 0693 9
Publisher - Institute of Physics Publishing
Price - £19.95
Pages - 208

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