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By John McMurtrie
Published 2005-07-10 00:00:00
From San Francisco Chronicle

n Dobson rents a modest basement apartment in the outer Sunset District, but he makes a point of telling a visitor that he doesn't live there; it's only a place to stay when the 89-year-old is not wandering the globe 10 months a year, preaching the wonders of the universe.

The cramped and musty flat certainly looks lived in: Piles of papers lie here and there, surrounded by porthole glass used to make telescope mirrors, and a cluttered bookshelf sags with such titles as "The Undivided Universe" and "The Immense Journey." Draped over a chair in the tiny kitchen -- where Dobson has just eaten his fried-egg dinner straight out of a pan -- is a sweatshirt with these words printed on it: "The Big Bang is a thing of the past."

Many San Franciscans will remember Dobson as the lanky man with a white ponytail who for decades has spent nights standing beside a homemade telescope on street corners, tirelessly urging passers-by to "come see the moon." A hero to countless amateur astronomers worldwide for revolutionizing the field with his Dobsonian telescope, the self-taught astronomer and former monk is now making his big-screen debut in a new documentary, "A Sidewalk Astronomer."

"I was expecting to have to tell him to go to hell, that he can't show it, " Dobson, a perpetual jokester, half jokes about the film's director, Jeffrey Fox Jacobs.

Luckily, nothing of the sort happened.

"A Sidewalk Astronomer" is a loving and captivating portrait of the man who's been called the Johnny Appleseed of astronomy, and it's also a lighthearted and instructive introduction to astronomy from a first-time director who is himself an amateur stargazer.

"John, to me, is sort of the white rabbit who is saying, 'You must look at this, come see,' about something that we're all too willing to ignore," Jacobs, 59, says from his home in Rye, N.Y. "I just find his contribution -- even though most people really are totally unaware of him -- astounding."

Dobson's intellectual curiosity goes back far. His maternal grandfather founded Peking University, where Dobson's father later taught zoology. Raised in a Methodist mission in Peking, which is how he still refers to the city now known as Beijing, Dobson was taught that all religions are true. The family moved to San Francisco in 1927, and not long after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in chemistry in 1943, Dobson joined the Vedanta Monastery, whose monks train themselves to help others in the world by studing Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy. At the order's Sacramento monastery, he studied the links between religion and science.

"To see what the hell the universe was all about," he says, he polished porthole glass from an old Navy ship into a mirror and made his first telescope, in 1956. When he peered through it, the revelation he had would change his life.

"I thought, 'My God! Everybody's got to see this!' " Dobson recalls.

Dobson continued to make telescopes that were large yet cheap, made out of scrap wood and cardboard tubing. What came to be known as the Dobsonian could be easily pointed in any direction, like a cannon. The monk sneaked out of the monastery to show people the night sky, but the monastery frowned on his excursions, and asked him to leave.

Moving back to San Francisco, Dobson co-founded, in 1968, the group that would make public-service astronomy his life's mission: the Sidewalk Astronomers.

Today, the group has chapters in many states, as well as such far-off places as Brazil, Britain and Russia. Jacobs, who has worked in film distribution and production for decades, joined the organization after looking through a Dobsonian telescope in 1986.

Jacobs has embraced Dobson's challenge to share his knowledge with others and regularly takes a telescope to New York City. He likens himself to a street musician, but instead of sharing music, he's sharing the cosmos.

"There's a thrill to seeing these people light up," he says.

It's a thrill that turns up often in Jacobs' film, when passers-by gaze at the moon, or when Dobson carts out his sun telescope in front of his Sunset apartment.

"Want to see the sunspots?" Dobson asks pedestrians. "Here, come see the sun."

People stop to peek into the hand-painted sky-blue telescope (the light is reflected, so they're not looking directly at the sun).

Inevitably, people's reactions are expressions of awe and astonishment: "Oh, cool! ... Wow! ... I've never seen this."

Over the years, at untold star parties and conventions, Dobson has heard all sorts of comments about his telescope mount, and he never lacks a quick- witted reply.

Passer-by: "That looks like a big toilet paper roll."

Dobson: "I'm not that big an ass!"

The astronomer routinely uses humor to make a point, as when he once told an anti-Darwinian, "If God made all this in 4004 B.C., why did he take the trouble to make it look so much older?"

Dobson makes a point of avoiding what he calls the G-word, mostly because it's been abused, he says. He prefers "the exterior decorator."

What gets him most worked up, it seems, is the Big Bang, which he says makes no sense because the universe never had a beginning. Or as a rusty pin on his coat succinctly puts it: "Nothing doesn't exist."

Ask Dobson about the Big Bang, and he will launch into a speedy explanation of "the changeless, the infinite and the undivided," quoting Sanskrit philosophy along the way.

Dobson has always been passionate about the cosmos, and his passion shows no signs of dimming. With a sly smile, he says, "My friend said long ago that on this last day, when they put this body in a box, the mouth will still work."

A Sidewalk Astronomer (not rated) opens Friday at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, Camera Cinemas in San Jose and the Nickelodeon Theatre in Santa Cruz.