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SF Gate Article Aug, 2005

By David Perlman
Published 2005-08-26 00:00:00
From SF Gate

John Dobson, itinerant telescope inventor, rogue cosmologist, onetime Vedanta Society monk and an unflagging inspiration to amateur astronomers around the world, is 90 years old and on the road again.

He arrives in San Francisco from Connecticut today to attend a crowded birthday party and an astronomy conference in his honor at the Josephine Randall Museum in the city Saturday, then flies back East on Monday to teach a round of classes at Yale University in telescope making -- which he still does all over the country, in Europe and most often in the Bay Area.

What began nearly 40 years ago under Dobson's tutelage as the nonprofit San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers has now become a worldwide movement -- groups of amateurs who hold free "star parties" by unlimbering their telescopes on city streets and parks to show passers-by the wonders of the sky.

For 12 full hours Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m., the conference at the Randall Museum, organized by the Astronomical Association of Northern California, will hear from amateurs and professionals on all aspects of astronomy -- from Mars exploration to grinding mirrors for homemade telescopes.

Dobson himself has taught thousands of children and adults how to build powerful telescopes by grinding their own mirrors from glass blanks -- years ago they were ground from surplus Navy portholes -- and adapting cardboard tubes used commercially as forms for concrete columns.

The amateur telescopes are steered on handmade movable rigs that Dobson invented and are known as Dobsonian mounts. During Saturday's conference, a group of early-day Sidewalk Astronomers will build an entire "Dobsonian" scope from scratch and -- if the sky is clear -- use it to gaze at the sky as the conference winds down that night.

Born in China where his grandfather was a founder of Peking University, Dobson and his parents moved to San Francisco in 1927. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a chemistry degree and then joined the Ramakrishna Order of the Vedanta Society. He left the order after 23 years as a monk in San Francisco and Sacramento at the request of his abbot because, as he put it, he was spending more time than he should building telescopes and showing the planets to passers-by.

By 1968, he was showing off his best homemade telescopes to crowds of kids at the corner of Jackson and Broderick streets in San Francisco, occasionally pacifying suspicious police officers by persuading them to see the "lovely rings" of Saturn for themselves.

"Care to look at the moon and the planets?" was Dobson's pitch to anyone who stopped to peer through his telescope's eyepiece, and the ponytailed eccentric soon had a fanatically loyal following of children and adults eager to make their own instruments.

To earn a modest living, Dobson taught astronomy and telescope-making classes at the Jewish Community Center and the California Academy of Sciences. He interspersed his instructions with philosophical discourse on cosmology -- particularly rejecting the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe in favor of his own version of what he calls a "recycling universe" with no beginning and no end.

He still teaches wherever he finds himself -- whether bunking free at the hospitable homes of friends and followers around the country, or living a few days at a time at his $475-a-month cramped two-room apartment at the far end of Judah street in the Outer Sunset.

Throughout Saturday's astronomy conference, Dobson will be encouraging the creation of homemade telescopes and star-gazing, while local amateur astronomers celebrate his 90th birthday with legends of his achievements as the world's best known promoter of telescope-making.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has issued a proclamation honoring Dobson as one of the city's "extraordinary citizens" as a teacher and for "encouraging the citizens of this planet to think and wonder about the universe (with) "a chance to see its beauty with their own eyes."