A Star Among Astronomers
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
"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.
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.
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