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Anecdotes

 
 
Someone once asked me, "Are you an astronomer, or are you a comic?" and I answered, "This is a funny Universe, and I'm not responsible."
 
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We Sidewalk Astronomers read the curves of our telescope mirrors on the glint of sunlight on power-pole insulators, and one day a lady came to me and asked
for my signature on a petition to put the power lines underground. I said, "Lady, you've got the wrong man."
 
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One day when I was living with the Snell family on Jackson Street in San Francisco, their friends, the Pitmans, from Phoenix, visited them and looked through
my telescope. Some time later, after proper arrangements had been made, the Pitmans drove from Phoenix to get me and all the necessary glass and so forth to
make six ten and a half inch telescopes. When the telescopes were finished, we had a party and several men came and assured me that when I got to be thirty-five I'd 
have a pot belly like theirs. I was fifty-three.
 
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Soon after I left the monastery in Sacramento in 1967, Bill Wuebold flew me to Palm Springs to test the seeing conditions, and left me there to hitch hike back to
San Francisco. But before leaving San Francisco I asked a girl who lived in our house whether I could stay with her father in Santa Monica if I got there on my way
back. She said he'd be delighted and that he lives in Barrington Towers. Good. On my way back I managed to get to Barrington Towers, this great, huge
apartment house on the top of a hill, and with purple liveried doormen who looked me up and down like dirt. But you should have seen how they straightened up when
I asked if Bayless was home, because that was then the biggest name in steel pipe. So they called him on the phone, but he wasn't home. And they tried again later.
Meanwhile the cops have seen me, and with two wheels on the sidewalk, they shake me down. They know by looking at me that I don't belong in Southern
California and they're looking for the truck driver who killed the cop who tried to give him a ticket on the highway. But I pass their inspection with flying colors and go back
to the purple liveried doormen. Bayless has called, and he's not coming home. Here I am, alone in Santa Monica, four hundred miles from home. I've been
shaken down by the cops, the Sun is going down, and I have no place to go. I cross Wilshire Boulevard to a little alley behind the back yards, and here come the cops,
"Hi Gov." and they go on by, because they've already checked me out. Finally I get to sleep on a patch of Bermuda grass between two buildings, and
behind a billboard on Wilshire Boulevard in Southern California. 
 
Now we go a year ahead to the story of the Pitmans taking me to Phoenix with all that glass. They had friends in Santa Monica and we stopped there for
dinner. But after they talked and played the I Ching, they decided it was too late to get dinner, so we went out to a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. It was in the
building next to the Bermuda grass, and across the street from where the cops had shaken me down.
 
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We went to the Summer Scientific Meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific when it was in Encinada Mexico, and we took our twenty-four incher with us
in my orange van, with San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers written on the side. When we got down to the end of the toll highway some Mexican kids said, "Follow
us. We know where you are going." That saved our bacon, because we had no idea where the meeting was.
 
In spite of cloudy skies, the mayor of Encinada walked us down to the Civic Plaza of the Monuments and asked us to set up the telescope, and he assigned the
Militia to watch over us. And then the skies cleared, and we entertained several hundred viewers who spoke another language. But the soldiers would not leave their
posts to come and look. We had Saturn on the twenty-four, and Venus on a smaller scope. And we tried to find out through body language when we should come again
without clouds.
 
In one of the meetings there I gave my talk, with the amateurs, On the Rest Mass of Cuckoo Clocks, and I learned my lesson. Don't joke with the professionals.
Several years later, at a Summer Scientific Meeting in Berkeley, I gave a similar talk, but this time with the professionals, on "The Electro-gravitational Rest
Energy of the Primordial Hydrogen" and they published it in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Volume 88, p. 606.
 
This time I put Einstein's famous equation on the board and asked for a show of hands, how many feel that this equation means that mass can be converted to
energy, and energy can be converted to mass, as in a swinging pendulum gravitational energy is converted to kinetic energy on the down swing, and kinetic
energy is converted to gravitational energy on the up swing. And some sixty-five percent of them put up their hands for that meaning. Only five or six hands went up
that that was not the meaning. Then I said that if Einstein had meant that, he would have written E + m = K, the sum of mass and energy is a constant, and I crossed off the equal sign.
 
Needless to say, that talk caused a furor in that meeting, and when one of the astronomers opened the door to let me out of the auditorium he said, "You are
mean. No one, in an audience of this caliber, asks for audience participation." Well, he's right about that.
 
Later, at the dinner, Allan Sandage got hold of me and said, "In these three days of lectures, yours is probably the only one that I'll remember."
He wanted to send me to Russia to work on their two hundred and thirty-six inch telescope. He said they had failed on three mirrors. But I didn't know Russian.
 
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Once, when we were going up to Canada, I got on the phone with someone up there and he said, "You're coming up here in June? It doesn't get dark up here in
June." So we didn't take any big telescope, neither the eighteen nor the twenty-four. The biggest telescope we had was a twelve incher, and that was the year that Don
Moser of Smithsonian Magazine followed us from park to park with a photographer,  and wrote it up as an article for the magazine.
 
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Once, when we were to go through the provincial parks of British Columbia, there was a provincial workers strike the night before; so we went through the
national parks, Jasper, Bampf and Waterton Lakes. That time, coming back to the States in the rain, our front wheels went into a mud filled trench across the highway,
and the stones broke our radiator. What to do? It's Friday night before a three day weekend and we're due at a US park on Tuesday. By the time the highway patrol
officer got us to town, it was after closing time on Friday, but we found a generous man with a truck who put his truck's radiator into my van for thirty Canadian dollars.
It's because of people like that that we did what we did, running telescopes and slide shows through the national parks and Indian Reservations. It's not all our fault.
 
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Once, on our way to Death Valley, Brian's engine broke down near the top of the last mountains going in. We put the twenty-four on another vehicle, I pushed him
to the top, and he coasted seventeen miles to Stovepipe Wells. There we got some tires and rope and I hauled him with my van to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
What to do? After all our efforts had failed, the man who salvages the Arco stations in the desert showed up, and in one whole day with his welding equipment, he built a tow
bar on Brian's van and a trailer hitch on mine. And at the end of the day I asked him, "Can we pay you something for this?" He laughed and said, "No, you may have to
salvage me in the desert." It's only because there are people like this in this world that the Sidewalk Astronomers have done what they've done.
 
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Recently, when I was about ninety, I was invited to Tennessee and they wanted me to talk about longevity. Well, I don't do that, but I was too late to change
the title. So when I found them waiting for me in a small auditorium, I scolded the hell out of them because, I said, "It has yet to be shown that it's better to be alive. It's
entirely guesswork. There's no observational evidence." But, I said, "If you want to stay alive, I have three pieces of advice for you. Don't drive when you're drunk! Don't
smoke! And don't tie your shoe in the presence of a mountain lion!" So I told them a story.
 
"I was walking along the ridge on the Point Rays Peninsula on a foggy day when the fog was making quite a bit of noise dripping in the puddles on the dirt road.
And I came upon a small meadow, and I stood there for quite a while, just looking when a mountain lion, from not more than fifteen or twenty feet to my right, went airborn
across in front of me, hit the ground, louder than a horse, and disappeared over the road. She must have seen me the whole time, but I didn't see her till she was airborn.
And she scared the hell out of me. If I had run, or tied my shoe, none of you would have met me, and I wouldn't be writing this story.
 
The other thing that those people wanted me to talk about was meditation, but that also I don't do. But this time, I was in time to change the title to What Happened
in the Monastery. And this time I wasn't in an auditorium but in a lady's house with two or three dozen listeners. And after I had talked for quite a long time, I got talking
about meditation and I said, "It's your whole life that stands behind your meditation.  It's not something you do on Saturday morning at ten." And they all laughed
because, I found out later, I was in the house of a lady who teaches meditation on Saturday mornings at ten thirty.
 
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In the monastery Swami asked one of the brothers how he was, and he answered that he was fine. Swami said, "I'll tell you when you're fine."
 
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Once, in a hippie camp, where a dwelling was tarps and blankets spread out on a redwood branch, I lay down on the ground to sleep. "Don't sleep there, that's
where we urinate." So I rolled over. "Don't sleep there, that's where we copulate." So I rolled over again.
 
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Once, in a physics colloquium at the University of California in Berkeley on the microwave background radiation I asked, "What's the temperature of the intergalactic
dust?" That question threw the room into turmoil. "Who did the work on intergalactic dust?" . . . I think that meeting closed in turmoil.
 
Next time I showed up at a colloquium I heard someone say, "Dobson's here again."
 
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Once when I was talking to a class at Yale, someone said that at Noah's flood the whole Earth was covered with water. I said "There's not enough water for that."
And everyone laughed at him.
 
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I've often thought that Crater Lake in Oregon is the prettiest thing I've seen, and several years after the Sidewalk Astronomers had quit going there with our
telescopes, because the situation had collapsed, they got me up there in a hotel and asked me to sign the guest book. Then they asked me to write something there; so I
wrote, "Crater Lake is to the Cascades what Saturn is to the Solar System."
 
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When Halley's Comet was coming they asked me to give the first in a series of talks on comets at Griffith Observatory. So I chose as my title, Falling and
Coasting Around the Sun. Then they wanted a blurb, and it came out this way.
"Orbits closed and open, orbits curved and straight,
But why are we weightless in orbit?
And what is mass and weight?
We move in conic sections, but why do we move at all?
And once we're set in motion, why do we coast and fall?"
 
After my talk, the audience converged on me. "Are you talking about God?" I'm not going to admit, in the middle of Los Angeles, that I'm talking about God.
One of the ladies who heard my talk flew me down to Southern California at Christmas time to show my slide show to her friends for Christmas. She rented part
of a restaurant and fed us all. There was a white haired gentleman there who, when he heard that we had a handful of rejection notices from trying to get
funded to make another twenty-four incher, said, "Give them to me. I'll underwrite them." Gerard had thrown them all away.
 
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In Boston when I was three, some big kid got me down and rubbed mud into my eyes till it was behind my eyeballs and the doctors thought that I would be blind.
Mother said it took a whole week for the mud to ooze out from behind my eyeballs. So now my right eye doesn't get a satisfactory picture, and my brain has had 88
years to get used to getting along without it. But it keeps it in to tell me how far away things are.
 
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Once, when we were in Death Valley with the telescopes, we had a twentyfour incher, two eighteen inchers, one sixteen incher and some smaller scopes, and
this kid came up to me and said, "If we go to an observatory we get to look through one single telescope at one single object, and that's the end of the evening. But if we
find the Sidewalk Astronomers in Death Valley, you have nine different telescopes on nine different objects, and if we want to see anything else, we have only to ask."
Lordy, Lordy I thought, he's put it in English. 
 
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Once when I was going in with the crowd to give the slide show, in Death Valley, someone asked me, "What is the connection between the rangers and the
Sidewalk Astronomers?" And I said, "It's just that we do the same thing. The Sidewalk Astronomers entertain the visitors with telescopes, and the rangers
entertain them with parks." Often, I have to say, "The Sidewalk Astronomers are astronomical entertainers by appointment to Her Majesty the American Public."
 
 
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When we were going to Rocky Mountain National Park we were told that we could get the telescopes out at Hidden Valley, or at a Visitors Center at eleven
thousand feet. And we could hardly wait. And when we got there we found that our vehicle was stationed right next to an amphitheater where a ranger was to give a talk
in the evening. So we asked, "Can't we get the telescopes out here?" "Oh no, you might attract a crowd."
 
Then we found out that we were allowed Hidden Valley because the public is locked out, and that we were allowed the Visitors Center at eleven thousand feet
because there is no one there after six. So we settled our big telescopes, and our fail-safe sun telescope at the YMCA headquarters which was there before the park.
Then, after some pleading on our part, the naturalist told us that a ranger would give an astronomy talk on Wednesday, and that after she was finished we could ask her
if it was alright to set up a telescope. So we went, and we listened, and most of her statements were wrong. But we told her what the naturalist had said, and asked if
we could set up a telescope. And in an angry voice she said, "They have no business to do this to me. I'm nineteen years old and I have never studied
astronomy for five minutes. They have no business to do this to me."  Next Wednesday we came again. She talked for five minutes and suggested
to her listeners that they look through the telescope.
 
Don't the naturalists know that the parks are in a Universe?
 
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A little boy at Glacier Point, in Yosemite National Park, said to me about the Sidewalk Astronomers, "Yours is the only program in the national parks that's not
geared to a nine year old." And he said it in a state of annoyance.
 
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Some time back, before Death Valley was a national park, we were there as usual with our telescopes, and ranger Bill Clark, noticing that we were doing what he
thought the rangers should be doing, made us all unpaid employees of the Death Valley National Monument. That was very polite. It relieved us of paying fees, and
covered us with Uncle Sam's insurance if anyone got hurt at the telescopes.
 
A year or two later he wrote, or phoned me, "They've moved me to the Grand Canyon. Come!" So we packed up and drove from San Francisco to the South Rim
of the Grand Canyon with a twenty-four, an eighteen and several other telescopes, a slide show and our fail-safe sun scope.
 
The rangers said that we could set up our telescopes in the parking lot of the Yavapai Point Museum, and there, at the west door of the Museum, we saw what I
have always considered the best exhibit I've ever seen in a national park. They had brought up the rocks from the bottom of the canyon and placed them on the floor
with a label — what they are and when they were laid down. Above that the next rocks and the next, all the way up to the ceiling. They had all the rocks from the
canyon in order, each with a label - what it was, when it was laid down, and who was living there at that time. Was it dinosaurs or wooly mammoths? It was the most
informative exhibit that I have ever seen in a national park, and now it is gone. I think it was taken down when the museum was remodeled. What a shame.
 
 
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We were there at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the late 1970s and in 1980 and 81. In 1980 the naturalist asked us to keep track of how many people used
our equipment. We were there for sixteen days and nights and it was nearly twenty thousand people because we gave slide shows every night, and we had lots of
telescopes, including fail-safe sun scopes for use in the daytime. In 1981 some naturalist sent me a copy of a letter he had received beginning, "We
don't need to be exposed to such controversial views in the national parks." And he put all his pet peeves against the scientists into that letter against me, including
many things I never say. That naturalist sent me that letter and asked me not to return. I stayed away for fourteen years. But first I answered his letter saying that we
don't say those things, and you don't say that the rocks at the bottom of this canyon started at 4,004 BC. But maybe he did, and maybe he took away my favorite exhibit.
 
There's an annual star party at the Grand Canyon now and I have the founder's button. But I go there only as some else's guest.
 
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When Brian Rhodes and I first made the twenty-four incher, I said to him that Glacier Point in Yosemite must be the best place in the whole world for a public
telescope but there's that awful hotel. We took the telescope up there anyway and found that the hotel had just burned down.
Soon after we had set up the telescope at Glacier Point, the security ranger saw it and said, "You'll have to take it down before dark." I was ready to pack it and
go, but Brian had a cooler head than mine. He took the ranger to the concessions building and they made a phone call to the rangers at the floor of the Valley. They
have invited us and we are staying.
 
That twenty-four incher has spent more than a hundred nights at Glacier Point in the course of twelve years, and the seeing conditions there are among the best in
the world. But, unfortunately, it has now been declared a day-use area, and we don't go there any more. From there we could see the zodiacal light both east and west at
the same time, and we could easily see the gegenschein, the glass beads orbiting the Sun.
 
Many years ago the Yosemite naturalist, David Carriker, said, "If we put telescopes in the national parks, we'll have to procure the telescopes, we'll have to
house the telescopes, we'll have to train someone to run the telescopes, we'll have to pay someone to run the telescopes. If we leave the telescopes, the slide shows
and the know-how with the Sidewalk Astronomers, we could get you from park to park for five grand a year." Unfortunately, we never met him again, and now he's
gone. 
 
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When we first got our twenty-four inch telescope to Crater Lake in Oregon, the cardboard tube of the twenty-four was too heavy, because some fifty pounds of
rain water had soaked into the cardboard. So the telescope was unusable till Ranger Hank Tanski and John Salinas got us some heavy weights to hang on the tailgate.
They had us set up the telescopes on the road, and they put those yellow cones around them to keep the traffic away. So we had the lake to our north and the
building where the talks are given to our south, and after a ranger had given a talk, we gave a slide show and then let the visitors look through the telescopes.
 
Hank was very helpful. He gave us a key to his house, and arranged to get us food allowances, seven dollars a day per person if we ate on our own, and twelve, if
we ate at the restaurant.
 
About 1991 the public television station in Los Angeles, KCET, called me on the phone, "We want the Sidewalk Astronomers in a national park in September." I
said, "We're not going to be in a national park in September. The only national park we're going to this summer is Crater Lake, and it's the second of July." They said,
"We're not supposed to shoot till September." "Tough shoes!" I said. But they got their stuff together on a chartered plane, flew it up to Medford,
got it in rented vehicles and drove it, and their crew of six, to Crater Lake.
 
We had a thirty-six incher, a twenty-four incher, an eighteen, and some smaller scopes, and we had a first quarter moon. And with all those people excited about the Moon I said,
"Shoot now." He said, "We want the glamour of darkness." So we waited for dark, and he turned on his flood lights, and every one laughed, and that was the end of
the shoot.
 
But he learned his lesson that time, 'Don't fuss with this guy, he knows more than you do.' So, in San Francisco, he didn't fuss at Ghirardelli Square where he
thought that nothing would happen. And that section is in film, The Astronomers.
 
Years later the situation at Crater Lake had changed. We could no longer give slide shows, and the then naturalist didn't even come to look through the telescopes,
so we gave it up.
 
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Long ago the Empress of China was asked to build a navy, so she built a marble boat that sits on the bottom of a lake two hundred miles from the sea. We
need more people like that. We're all descended from the alpha males, and we like to fight. We're the only species that has no enemy except itself. Almost all our guns
are made to kill people. No one hunts rabbits with a machine gun. You must have noticed.
 
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The Chinese invented gun powder but we invented guns. The Chinese invented printing but we invented the printing press.
I don't know who invented writing, but the Chinese need an alphabet. Their spoken language is simple, but their written language is hopeless.
 
 
  *********
 
What looks hopeless to me now is the methane problem. It appears that methane is more than twenty times as effective as carbon dioxide at global warming.
And it appears that the amount of methane, as methane hydrates, frozen in the water on the continental shelves is enough to replace the Arabian oil for several
centuries. And the danger is that we are burning Arabian oil at such a rate that the warming of the oceans may release enough methane to take over the global
warming itself and all the methane will get out. Then, I think, we go extinct in fifty years because the Earth will get so warm that there will be no ice and no cold water
left on Earth, and the air will be too hot for raising plants and animals for food.
 
This planet is infested with people. It's an infestation, the likes of which this planet has never seen. Our population is now beyond the carrying capacity of this
ball. Outside of the park where Jane Goodall studies the chimps the trees are gone and the people are digging up the roots for fire wood. We've got to stop. Recently, in
one of my talks in California, someone asked for my advice, and I said, "Stop having babies!" And the whole audience broke out clapping, especially the women.
 
A few years back when we were taking a swami to the airport in Chicago, I mentioned to the swamis that in India it looks glorious that in California we can raise
rice at only eight manpower hours per acre per year, while in India it's eight or nine hundred. But, I said, there's another side to this statistic. In India, for ten calories of
energy that goes into a farm, a hundred calories comes out, whereas in this country, for ten calories of energy that goes into a farm, only one calorie comes out.
 
We run our farms on Arabian oil, and we scatter the seed by airplane, and our farms are not going concerns.
There are too many people, and too many cars. Even our drinking water comes in bottles. Back in the thirties someone said, "You just wait, they're going to
put this stuff in bottles and sell it." And now look! This is the machine age, but people are being crowded out by people. There are too many people, and too many cars.
 
And, when the oil runs out, Suburbia is coming to a crashing end.
 
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It takes a long time to build a Mercedes, and it'll only get you to the Grand Canyon. You can build a telescope in about a week, and it'll get you to the Moon. 
You can build a telescope in about a week.
 
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Understanding this Universe? - We've been working at it for several thousand years. They're not comparable problems.
If we can walk on the Moon, we can understand this Universe, and we've walked on the Moon.
 
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In India they say, "He is a fool who wants to cross the river after all the water runs down." No one in Southern California would have made such a stupid
statement. Mark Twain once said, "I fell into the Los Angeles river and got all dusty." Most of the time you can play in the sand, but when it goes, look out!
 
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Swami Vivekananda said that in India they go down on their knees before the man who studies the Vedas but not before the man who studies physics. He said
that it is utter materialism and superstition, and not Vedanta at all. He said, 'Science and truth is all the religion that exists.'
 
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Once, on the Golden Gate Bridge, when we had the Sun and a waning crescent Moon (passed third quarter) I pointed out to a lady that under these
conditions she could see at a glance that the Sun is far, far away on the other side of the Moon. She was fascinated and studied it for quite a while. A little later I pointed it
out to a man, not a young man, who looked at it and said, "It's not possible."
 
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Once, in 2002 or 2003 when I was about to give a talk at the Vedanta Center in Hollywood, and where I was going to use some Sanskrit, I told the audience, "I am
not a Sanskrit scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been exposed to Sanskrit through most of the last century."  But why didn't I notice all the physics that's built into the Sanskrit language till
I was eighty five years old? I know how retarded I am, but I console myself, that no one else but Swami Vivekananda noticed it at all.
 
 
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When I showed the first quarter moon through the telescope to a lady in San Francisco in the daytime she said, "I can see the blue sky right through it." And a
lady in Texas said, "We always have a full moon in Texas." When I showed the first quarter moon to a man in San Francisco, he looked
for quite a while and then said, "It's in bad need of repairs."
 
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Back in the nineteen forties, when I was in the monastery in San Francisco, I had bursitis in my right shoulder. And I think I was already in Sacramento by the time
the doctors shot me up with cortisone, and told me that my shoulder would be stiff for the rest of my life. Only now, after more than forty years, can I again get my right
arm to my forehead without pushing it up with my left. 
 
Before I left San Francisco I read in Adele Davis's Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit that Wulzen Factor, found in raw summer butter and cream, prevents an arthritis like
disease in animals. So I thought, maybe it will work on bursitis. So I ate a half pound of raw butter, and it worked right away. And, till now, raw summer butter and cream
is the only thing that ever helped my bursitis. But don't get butter that's been melted and poured into the container! It's no longer raw.
 
Somewhere I heard that the amount of vitamin C that is destroyed by pasteurizing the milk in this country is more vitamin C than is available from the
entire citrus crop.
 
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When I saw the Star Wars movie I was shocked to see that the American public could accept something beyond physical force.
 
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When I was jn the monastery in Sacramento, and making telescopes, there were some open messages that went between there and San Francisco. Any one
could read them, so we wrote in code. A telescope was called a geranium, and if I say that I have a twelve inch potted geranium, it means that I have a twelve inch
telescope in a tube and rocker, and if I say that it's in bloom, it means that the mirror has been aluminized. No one who carried those notes knew what was going on.
 
But Swami Vivekananda had wanted spiritual aspirants to go from village to village with magic lanterns to educate the villagers in science. We were doing what
we could. But the Sidewalk Astronomers do it better now with both telescopes and slide shows, and we're a service arm of the national parks.