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Patrick Moore and the future of UK astronomy

Submitted by Kevin Jardine on 10 December, 2012 - 16:02

Patrick Moore, the long serving host of the BBC's astronomy program The Sky at Night has died. I don't remember hearing much about Moore when I lived in Canada, but I certainly did when I moved to Europe and started relying more on the BBC as a source of news. Moore was known as a tireless promoter of amateur astronomy and the public awareness of astronomy, as well as being a harmless eccentric in his political and economic views.

Moore certainly was a tireless promoter of astronomy, but I'm not sure that his political and economic views were either harmless or eccentric. I'll explain below.

As noted by Sarah Kendrew and Phil Plait, Moore was admired and valued by professional astronomers both because his detailed knowledge of the latest science informed his public outreach, and because he inspired a number of his listeners to become professional astronomers during his long career.

I first heard about Moore during the lead up to the solar eclipse of August 11, 1999. Moore spent the eclipse period in Cornwall, seeing nothing, because (as had been projected by weather forecasters) the sky was clouded over. I was puzzled by a BBC interview he did next to a group of disappointed British amateur astronomers in which he expressed sadness at missing the eclipse. I wondered why Moore had not read the weather forecast and gone to southern Germany (as I had - to Augsburg) or further east, where the skies were clear.

I think part of the reason was that Moore was showing solidarity with British amateur astronomers, many of whom lacked the time or money to travel elsewhere. But I think that Moore's unwillingness to travel outside the UK was also a reflection of something larger - a profound nostalgia for a time long ago (before 1950, possibly before 1900) when the English rarely left their island and carried out world class astronomy even in the outskirts of London.

I think that it is this nostalgia for a time when the sun never set on the British empire, when men were men and women stayed at home, that was the root cause of his hostility to the European Union, his support for the UK Independence Party, and his strongly stated views against immigration and better careers for women.

I don't think that this nostalgia was either harmless or eccentric. It was not eccentric, because it is in fact surprisingly common in the UK. While most supporters of the UK Independence Party may not share Moore's views on gender roles, they do share his Little Englander xenophobia and fear of international cooperation, especially through the institutions of the European Union. This nostalgia is not harmless because its prevalence is doing great harm to the UK's international standing, even within the field of astronomy.

The sun now does set on the British empire, and world class astronomy now largely takes place far from England, in the cold dry deserts of Chile, the peaks of volcanoes in Hawaii or in orbiting space telescopes. Even networks of radio telescopes in Europe like EVN require close international cooperation to run.

Most, if not all good science requires expensive instruments and the cooperation of many talented professionals around the world. Without institutions of international cooperation like the European Union, the UK and other European countries would soon be reduced to second class status, falling far behind the United States and (increasingly) China.

Moore's all-too-common political nostalgia was not only bad for the UK's future in an increasingly interdependent world. It was also bad for the practice of astronomy of which Moore was so passionate an advocate. Astronomy is a subject that has no limits and no borders. I hope that its advocates in future will try to have none either.