[TAC] John Dobson Article
Date: Wed Sep 01 2004 - 08:15:22 MST
A nice article on John Dobson from today's Wall Street Journal:
The Father of Street-Corner Stargazing
By BRETT CAMPBELL
When he was a child growing up in Beijing, John Dobson used to lie on his
back, gaze upward, and imagine the sky was a vast ocean below him. If only he
could slip the bonds of gravity, he wondered, how far would he plunge into the
sky's endless depths?
Mr. Dobson has never stopped wondering about what lies beyond our home
planet. Possessing a quicksilver wit, a gift for turning a phrase that makes
scientific concepts accessible, and an energy that belies his nearly 90 cycles
around the sun, Mr. Dobson is one of history's greatest popularizers of
Through his founding of the Sidewalk Astronomers of America, his invention
of a simple, cheap, yet powerful telescope, his media attention (he's appeared
on "The Tonight Show," PBS and dozens of radio programs), and his
star parties, Mr. Dobson has brought the wonders of the universe to millions.
And he's done it largely outside the scientific and academic establishments,
traveling all over the world, an itinerant opener of eyes and minds. This
summer alone, he's taught weeks-long classes in telescope making and cosmology
in Texas, Oregon and New York. Then after a trip to Italy and a brief stay in
his San Francisco basement apartment -- his "home" for only a few
weeks each year -- he's off to South America.
John Dobson, an ascetic man with unorthodox cosmological views, is one of
history's great popularizers of science.
Mr. Dobson's childhood curiosity about the universe has never wavered.
After his parents -- both teachers -- returned to San Francisco from China in
1927, Mr. Dobson studied chemistry at the University of California at
Berkeley. But while he learned that science could explain much of how the
universe worked, Mr. Dobson's search for deeper meaning led him in 1944 to
join San Francisco's Vedanta monastery, where he found that the pre-Buddhist
philosophy that originated in India complemented rather than contradicted
science and empirical observation. (He's now completing a book that he hopes
will reconcile quantum physics with ancient mysticism.)
In the early 1950s, Mr. Dobson spied a 12-inch piece of porthole glass on a
friend's table and realized that it could be polished with sand into a
reflecting telescope mirror. As an ascetic monk with no money, he was forced
to scrounge for materials, cobbling the mount from such humble objects as a
plywood box, the cardboard cores of garden hose reels, and roof shingles. Then
he pointed his homemade contraption at the moon -- and was astonished by how
much detail he could see. Craters, mountains, crags leapt to life. "It
was like I was coming in for a landing," he says. His eventual design for
an affordable Newtonian reflecting telescope would later be named the
Mr. Dobson started lending telescopes to kids who'd see him stargazing on
the streets of San Francisco, and then teaching them to make their own.
Eventually his absences led to his dismissal from the monastery. A few months
later, in 1968, he co-founded the Sidewalk Astronomers, headquartered in a
retired school bus that made hundreds of trips around California for star
parties. Its two-dozen chapters now include São Paulo, Liverpool, Moscow and
British Columbia. And Mr. Dobson still lives like a monk, shunning possessions
as he stays with members and friends on his travels around the world, teaching
people to build telescopes and to understand what they see with them.
At a recent appearance in Eugene, Ore., Mr. Dobson briskly enters a
planetarium crowded with children and adults eager to hear his unorthodox view
of cosmology. He flings hundreds of small fliers in the air, and as they
flutter through the crowd, Mr. Dobson launches into his condemnation of the
Big Bang -- which he dismisses as the idea that "nothing made everything
out of nothing." Citing sources as old as Einstein's groundbreaking 1905
Special Theory of Relativity and as recent as current papers in astronomy, Mr.
Dobson makes the case for a universe that has always existed. Much of his
explanation is lost on anyone not conversant with recent developments in
astrophysics, and seems unlikely to persuade the overwhelming majority of
physicists who have for decades subscribed to the Big Bang theory.
But regardless of the ultimate outcome of that debate, Mr. Dobson's real
legacy is apparent in what happens after his lecture, when the audience moves
outside to find a dozen or more telescopes set up and pointing at the evening
sky.The members of the telescope class Mr. Dobson has been teaching for the
past month are showing off their new scopes, assembled for a few hundred
dollars from hardware-store components. (A Dobsonian can be made for as little
as $20 if you don't take shortcuts.) They've been setting up on busy street
corners for the past week, drawing crowds of curious viewers young and old.
Some of the cylinders stretch to eight feet long and more than a foot in
diameter, and it's a wonder that the sight of a half-dozen or more mortar-like
tubes pointed skyward doesn't prompt a visit from Homeland Security.
"Awesome!" cries one teenager. "Wow!" marvels another.
Despite the ready availability of recent TV and Internet images of Saturn's
rings, passersby and students alike are clearly amazed by what they can spy
through a telescope lens: Jupiter's bands, other galaxies, and a three-quarter
moon whose surface is so distinct it seems you could almost spot the American
flag at Tranquility Base. Small scopes can make big discoveries, like the
planet discovered last month in a constellation 500 light years from Earth by
astronomers using a four-inch telescope (a third the diameter of some of
these), or the nebula nabbed by a Kentucky amateur astronomer's three-incher
Mr. Dobson's affected irascibility vanishes as he ushers bystanders over to
peer through the eyepieces. For him, gazing beyond the earthbound features
that humans evolved to perceive is a way to overcome what he calls our
"genetic programming" -- mistaken notions such as the earth being
flat, and the sun revolving around it. Both the Vedantans and the quantum
physicists understand that what we perceive is merely an apparition, and Mr.
Dobson challenges us to see beyond our egocentric, earthbound point of view to
glimpse the strange beauty of the reality beneath and beyond. Just as the
young Mr. Dobson was able to envision the sky as an ocean below him, what he
really wants viewers to see through their telescopes is a new perspective.
Recently a puzzled park ranger, spotting Mr. Dobson leading one of his
frequent star parties at Yellowstone National Park, asked the old stargazer if
he considered the sky to be part of the park. "No," he replied,
"the park is part of the sky."
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