The Idler Issue 28 Summer 2001
When we asked science-loving, Mars-exploring Alex James whether he'd like to interview Patrick Moore for the Idler, he responded with, "Oh yeah! Jim'll fix it!"
MOORE: So, what's the purpose of this interview?
Patrick Moore is fixing me with his observing eye and I wonder who is going to be interviewing who. I'm on a couch in the wood-paneled salon of his part-thatched "Mr. Man" house in Selsey on the South Coast. Sunlight is streaming through low windows and there is immense calm and room for thought. There's so much to look at. We're surrounded by comfortable chairs and musical instruments, mainly xylophones. There's lots of stuff in here, but it's not clutter. Photos of heavenly bodies, drawings of aliens. It's such a crispy clear day through the window, clarity indeed. There's nobody further removed from OK and Hello! magazine but this is my idea of a dream house. Here is a man who's written over a hundred books and decoded the cosmos for generations.
JAMES: the boys at the Idler like the idea of your observatory - it's the ultimate shed, where you can go to build your dreams [loud laughter] . . . well, that and an airy light chat about the Universe at large.
MOORE: Right you are, right you are.
JAMES: I'm a musician and . . .
MOORE: Do you know Brian May? He's a highly qualified astronomer, an astrophysicist, he's an expert on interplanetary dust, he was on The Sky at Night with me. Oh no, I don't like their music, not my kind of music. I've written quite a bit of music . . .
I had noticed some hand written sheet music at the piano (in 4 flats!) while he was making the coffee.
MOORE: Oddly enough, can't move my right hand, suddenly went on me. Relic of the war. Friends' wedding next year. Wanted me to compose a wedding march. Sat down at the piano and thought, "All right, I'll write the piano score down." Played it through and that's the last time I could play. Sadly, I can never play again.
The music is still there to behold as you read this and the drama of the situation is almost theatrical. It's quite a romantic image for me. I'd already noticed he can strike a pose for the camera, much better than I can. Come to think of it, everyone I'm really impressed by tends to come across in a theatrical way. He pads off whistling cheerfully and quietly to himself and presents me with a CD of his music performed by an enormous orchestra. It's called Moore Music and it kicks ass in the style of Souza. He's quite the renaissance man - fanatical cricketer, composer, scientist.
JAMES: Do you think art, music and science all merge into one thing at a certain level - that science is a methodology for approaching the truth in the same way that art is?
MOORE: [pleasantly] True enough, true enough. You have to be creative to do good science. You've got to think for yourself, that's the whole point. I'm totally art blind, I couldn't draw this cup if I lived to be hundred [he surely shall]. No idea about art [guffaw].
JAMES: I'm sure that most people feel they have no capacity for science, in a similar way - you know, people generally think they can't draw or sing or do maths. Anyway do you do all your observing in the visual range?
Most if not everything that we know about the cosmos is through the analysis of electromagnetic radiation, and you probably remember from school that light is just one type of electromagnetic wave. In recent decades whole new branches of astronomy have evolved around observing different wavelengths. Radio waves are the most sophisticated means of communication we can conceive at present. Light waves ten to get absorbed by Brian May's cosmic dust but long wavelength radio waves penetrate space unhindered and are what we expect sophisticated civilisations might be using to try to communicate with us.
Patrick had been hoping to make a long series of observations of Mars this year, but the arm business has scuppered his chances. The phone rings and he wanders off, apologising. With immaculate timing many different clocks start whirring and boinging the hour and I enjoy a magic moment. He returns with his little cat.
JAMES: [nervous] Well, we're standing on the shores of such profound mystery.
MOORE: [eyebrow fully raised] We are indeed. There are lots of things I'd like to know, we won't know in my lifetime, but when I think of what we didn't know sixty years ago, we're now batting on a completely different wicket. It's been an amazing period.
JAMES: [tackily, possibly] What's the single most amazing thing?
MOORE: [graciously] I think the realisation that the universe is so ...vast. When I was born in 1923 we thought our galaxy was the only one. Now of course, there's thousands of millions. We had all the distances wrong. The real crunch came with the electronic revolution - photography replaced by electronic aids. All our ideas about the planets were very largely wrong. We thought Venus might be a world covered with water and there might be life. Ha! Far from it.
JAMES: Still, there's an outside chance of life on Mars.
MOORE: There may be very primitive single-celled life on Mars, probably is I think. I think we shall soon know. But certainly nothing so advanced as a blade of grass.
A bewilderingly intelligent scientist I met at a cosmic chess and wine do a couple of years ago explained to me that life that's evolved elsewhere may have been generated in a completely different fashion - not involving DNA - so we've certainly got loads to learn. In fact, half of the matter in the universe is apparently undetectable - we know it's there as we can see it's gravitational effect on galaxies. Physicists believe we are moments away from a paradigm shift as devastating as relativity. Newtonian and Einsteinian and Quantum theory are all re-developments of the same process. The quantity of the knowledge we have is growing at a faster rate than ever. Observational work and reconceptualisation go hand-in-hand. Often all possible conclusions are mind numbing and there is no need to sensationalise. Bertrand Russell noticed that when you ask, "are we alone in the Universe," either conclusion is daunting.
MOORE: We could have a man on Mars in twenty years if we wanted. No atmosphere though. We could never live there.
JAMES: We could have a roof on it. I heard somewhere that the sun may have an invisible partner orbiting.
MOORE: We'd have found it by now - there may be another planet beyond Neptune, but an ordinary planet.
JAMES: What about the Oort cloud - thinking about that helps me go to sleep.
MOORE: Yes, strange place, they're about six millions miles away, these Oort clouds - ice particles- it's where comets come from. We landed on the surface of an asteroid a couple of months ago. Eros. Absolutely amazing. Look at that - cat's sound asleep. This time last year I was hoping to play cricket...
JAMES: So there was a great surge of technology with the moon shots and we were doing everything we could to throw ourselves into space - what happened?
MOORE: Things seemed to calm down with the manned flight programme for two reasons. First, the Russians are essential in this, and they ran out of money. The Americans made a mistake in that they put all their cosmic eggs in one basket - the space shuttle - and they used solid fuels and that awful Challenger disaster. The one thing Werner Von Braun told them not to do. That held up things completely. It'll get going again, the International space station is up there now. The unmanned probes to the planets were amazing in this period. We've now contacted all the planets except Pluto. Amazing pictures back from the whole lot!
JAMES: And the moons...
MOORE: Io, Europa, Callisto, Ganymede. Titan will be next, 2004. We'll find out if there really is a chemical ocean, there may well be.
JAMES: A lot of moons, no?
MOORE: Well, only four big ones on Jupiter, one big on Saturn - five medium; no really big one on Uranus - five medium again; and one medium with Neptune; unless you count Pluto, which is an oddity; but Jupiter's four and Saturn's one, they're the only planetary size.
JAMES: Do you feel any scruples about going into space - isn't it a military sector anyway?
MOORE: Not now, let's face it. The first shots were military, but we have to go into space, or we'll stagnate.
JAMES: Isn't the military the engine that drives the technology that builds it all?
MOORE: Not now. When Von Braun was building the V2's in Germany, the RAF bombed it. I wasn't on that raid, but I might have been. Five years later, me and Von Braun were having lunch together in New York.
JAMES: Before things can really kick off, we need a new form of propulsion technology.
MOORE: I can't see where that's coming from. In the solar system we can do it with our rockets. If you're going to go further, I don't think any propulsion system will do - you can't go as fast as light for various Einstein reasons. Getting to the stars has got to be by some non-material means, and when you start to talk about space warps, teleportation and mind travel, it's all pure science fiction, but no more than television would have been a century ago. Don't ask me how it's going to be achieved.
JAMES: My favourite notion is that there's only one electron in the universe, it's moving everywhere at once.
MOORE: No way of proving it.
JAMES: It's a million pounds a kilo to Mars. That's nothing, is it?
MOORE: The last Mars probe cost 1/40th of one nuclear submarine.
JAMES: So what would you do with that kind of money?
MOORE: Well, medical research is the most important thing. If I had to invest in space? Well, it's not enough for a lunar base. It would have to be the space station, they are doing good medical research there.
JAMES: Rocket science is hardly rocket science any more is it - it's Fifties technology.
MOORE: Basically, it is. After all they work on the same principle Chinese fireworks do, come to that.
JAMES: I've been trying to visualize what shape the universe is. Are we perched on the three dimensional surface of a hypersphere?
MOORE: Impossible to say. We're certainly a few dimensions short. You know, Einstein couldn't have answered that question. I know because I asked him.
MOORE: I think that there are beings out there that are cleverer than us, for sure.
MOORE: They're too far away. Radio waves are too slow. You can't go faster than light and there's no way round that.
When Professor Patrick Moore's scrutinising, penetrating, "see all kinds of stuff" eye, looks at you and states that there are cleverer beings out there, it is terrifying. It says "astronomer" on his passport, and that's what he thinks. He's obviously learnt to live with it and offers poached eggs for lunch. In the kitchen he cracks them with gusto into water at rolling boil. The toast takes two to three seconds. He gives me the nicest two and doesn't spare the ketchup on his own. Even the small talk is invigorating and clocks whirr and whizz. He is one of the cleverest people I am ever likely to meet. A fiercely proud man, I feel he could have me in tears in about ten seconds if he wanted. He tells me he was lucky because he realised what he wanted to do aged seven, and taught himself. Everybody knows what they want at seven. I think most people just don't get on with it. He says he regrets not going to University, all his qualifications are honorary, but nothing is so certain as what you've discovered for yourself and I think that was probably to his gain. He has no family, his girl was killed in the war and like the piano business, that was that, he's never had another. Perhaps this has given him the space to become what he is. It's hard to imagine how someone with a family could be quite so devoted to their work. He's spent thousands of hours mapping the moon from his back garden - "show me a crater and I'll tell you which one it is."
He's never lived in London, never fancied it. He's got his thing and lets the world beat a path to his door.
After some more coffee we wander round the garden with its temperature gauges, vines and roses. Birds are singing and it's idyllic.
There are several telescopes in various domes, all built for him by Fuller of Farringdon Road (always worth a visit). We enter the biggest shed carefully. The roof glides back with mechanical precision. He swings a perfectly counterbalanced telescope through 180 degrees and I realise this is where he spends his time, with all his machines for finding out what he needs to know. We point her at the sun and detect a few sunspots, there's quite a lot of magnetic activity today.
Astronomy is an ancient profession, but here's someone who's cut a swathe for himself. Can you name any other astronomers? Far Out Geezer.
Foundations of Astronomy, Michael A. Seeds
And the British space effort at Beagle2.com
This article was typed up and the pictures scanned by Cristina so if you just go taking them, we'll probably do something really hideous to you.