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A Star Among Astronomers

By David Perlman
Published 2005-01-26 12:57:19
From San Francisco Chronicle

Eighty-five-year-old John Dobson, onetime Ramakrishna monk, off-beat cosmologist and Pied Piper of fledgling stargazers, has faced suspicious cops, cloudy nights, wind-swept hills and noisy schoolkids all over the Bay Area and beyond. But for the past 30 years, living from hand to mouth, he has also taught at least 1,500 newly minted amateur astronomers -- adults and youngsters alike -- to build their own powerful telescopes that really work. Along the way he has also inspired an organization of devotees who call themselves the Sidewalk Astronomers, now functioning in Canada and eight states from Hawaii to Massachusetts.

Nearly any month when skies are clear, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people join in the club's intriguing nighttime rituals. Clusters of strange dark tubes point toward the constellations while club members stand in line to squint through tiny eyepieces at all the wonders of the sky -- the planets, star clusters, spiral galaxies, and the comets, too, whenever they appear.

Slender, pony-tailed and disarmingly frail-looking, Dobson is a man with a mission. On a recent day, he spent six crowded hours at San Francisco's Alvarado Elementary School, talking to students and answering dozens of sharp questions: "What is gravity?" "Why is Venus so hot?" "Why do the moons of Jupiter look like they're all in a straight line? "If there was water on Mars, where did it go?"

Dobson had the answers, and when one youngster asked him which was his favorite planet, his reply was quick: "Saturn, of course, because its rings are so lovely -- one of the loveliest sights you'll ever see." Then he proved his point with a show of slides, drawing gasps from some of the kids while others, entranced, stared in silence.

That same evening, Dobson was showing a dozen avid builders how to complete their own telescopes in the final session of an eight-week class at the Josephine Randall Museum in San Francisco's Corona Heights.

Under his brusque instructions the builders tested their "Dobsonian" telescope mounts, made from scrap lumber, that swiveled their thick 6-foot- long cardboard tubes smoothly atop discarded phonograph records and swung the tubes skyward on gimbals lubricated with tiny scraps of surplus Teflon. Dobson invented the improvised but meticulously crafted mounts when he first began making telescopes more than 40 years ago.

After Dobson made sure all the mounts worked smoothly, each student gave a final polish to the thick discs of commercial glass that serve as mirrors, gently curved surfaces the students had shaped themselves during hours of hard labor over the past eight weeks. "That one's a little bit high in the middle, and I think there's still some astigmatism there," Dobson said as he inspected one mirror, still undergoing a hand polish with cerium oxide powder. Eric Saxon, a Pacifica high school maintenance man was building a telescope with his 14-year-old daughter.

"But if you polish any more there's a lot more danger you'll make it worse, so I'd bag it right now," Dobson said. Saxon, a natural-born tinkerer, also repairs clocks and almost anything else mechanical. He came to telescope-making by accident only last year in Yellowstone National Park when he had his first chance to look at the planets through a telescope.

"I got kind of hooked," he said as he paused from polishing. "John is a tough teacher, but all the work will sure be worth it." Later, Dobson turned to Milvia Hedlund, an internationalist if ever there was one, and insisted that she needed to hand-polish her mirror just a bit more.

"It's always polish more, polish more, polish more," Hedlund complained with a smile. "But John's a perfectionist most of the time; he wants everything just right, and he demands it." Hedlund lives near Barcelona, was born Italian, and is a Swedish citizen. Carrying her now-flawless mirror, she returns to Spain after the New Year, determined to make Dobson a telescope-teaching guru throughout Europe.

"I was visiting friends in Los Angeles a few years ago," Hedlund said, "and they took me to the Griffith Observatory just to look. I wasn't very interested, but I bought a little booklet about astronomy, and started reading it just because I didn't have anything else to do. Suddenly, I was caught, and when I heard about John the next time I was in San Francisco I took his class. Now I'm the secretary of our amateur astronomy club in Spain, and we have big plans.

"We're going to raise enough money to bring John over to Spain to help our members make their own telescopes, then to Italy to do the same, and finally to England before we let him go home -- if we can find the money," she said.

Jane Houston, a San Francisco software design consultant, is Dobson's principal driver, organizer and unofficial cheerleader. Her van is filled with her telescopes, and she's the driving force behind the Sidewalk Astronomers' periodic star parties, which attract crowds of curious bystanders eager for their first look at the craters of the moon, the Galilean satellites of Jupiter and the spectacular rings of Saturn.

"My own interest began a dozen years ago at the California Academy of Sciences," Houston said, "where John was teaching a class and I started making my own. It was strenuous work, but I loved it, and now I'm the official amateur on the Board of Directors of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the real professionals." Dobson himself is one of those only-in-San Francisco eccentrics who have given the city its flavor since the days of Emperor Norton, and his story by now has a mythic flavor, although it's true. Born in China, where his grandfather was the founder of Peking University and his father was a zoology professor, Dobson graduated with a chemistry degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1943. After a brief wartime stint at a factory job, he felt the lure of Hindu philosophy, and a year later he joined the Ramakrishna Order of the Vedanta Society as a monk in San Francisco.

Transferred to a Vedanta monastery in Sacramento, Dobson began fooling around with star-gazing, made his own small refractor telescope and then a big 12-inch reflector with the mirror polished from a porthole salvaged from a Navy ship headed for a postwar boneyard.

Soon Dobson was making more telescopes, grinding his mirrors secretly at the monastery, polishing them with jeweler's rouge and persuading loyal friends from outside to smuggle him more portholes. With more home-made telescopes mounted on wheels, Dobson began trundling his instruments all around Sacramento to astonish passers-by with view of the skies they had never seen.

But going AWOL from the monastery was not the thing to do, and Dobson was expelled. He hauled his telescopes to San Francisco, housed them in a beat-up van, started teaching telescope-making classes for teenagers at the Jewish Community Center, the Randall Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. By 1967, he and a couple of his star pupils began setting up their telescopes on the corner of Jackson and Broderick streets whenever the nights were clear, and crowds gathered.

One November night, in 1968, a worried Pacific Heights mother spotted Dobson with children all around him and called the police. An officer arrived to inquire just as a Chronicle reporter was taking a peek at Saturn.

"He's OK," said the reporter, reassuringly, "just an astronomer." "Care to look at the moon too, sir?" Dobson asked the officer. And with one startled look at Tycho, the spectacularly rayed lunar crater, the cop knew no crime was afoot.

That same year saw the founding of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, whose members plied the city's nighttime streets to show and explain what their telescopes revealed. Soon other Sidewalk Astronomers organized in other Bay Area cities, and more began forming around the country.

"He's really a national treasure now and he's made big changes in amateur astronomy," said Jose Olivarez, director of astronomy at the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland hills. Treasure or not, Dobson keeps at his self-appointed role as astronomical missionary and telescope-making guru.

"There's so much out there to see and wonder at," he says. "And so many questions to ask. How did it all begin? Where is it all going? Did the universe really start off with one big bang billions and billions of years ago, or is it in kind of a steady state, with new matter and energy forming as our expanding universe reaches its outer limits? That's what I believe, and it's not a very popular view of cosmology, but as long as more and more people look at the heavens and ask questions like those, then I don't think the human race is in much danger."