SF Gate Article Aug, 2005
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.
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.
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."