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By Richard Hill
Published 2004-10-27 10:52:10
From THE OREGONIAN April 2, 2003


John Dobson fits right in at the church-turned-astronomy store. With his white hair tied in a ponytail, the astronomical missionary is doing what he's been doing for nearly half his 87 years: urging people to look to the heavens and preaching about the wonders of the universe.

The former monk -- often called the "Pied Piper of Astronomy" -- is teaching telescope-making and cosmology classes through mid-April at Sean's Astronomy Shop, a former Baptist church in Battle Ground. Dobson is credited with revolutionizing amateur astronomy. He not only designed and made simple, large reflecting telescopes that previously had been too expensive for the average person, but also started the first "sidewalk astronomy" group that allowed passers-by to peer through the instruments for close-up views of the night sky.

"He's a living legend among sky-watching enthusiasts," says Jim Todd, planetarium director at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. "Dobson has inspired sky watchers around the world with his passion for astronomy."

Stan Seeberg, an amateur astronomer with the Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers, agrees. "John is definitely a legend. What makes him special is that he's not part of the scientific establishment," Seeberg says.

"He just took rudimentary materials and made ugly telescopes. And he's been at the forefront of taking astronomy to the people where they are, even on city streets and in parks. He's popularized it."

Dobson has reservations about being famous but doesn't mind his "living legend" status as long as it gets people interested in astronomy.

Wearing a red plaid shirt, jeans, sneakers and a jacket with buttons saying "Nothing Doesn't Exist" and "Grand Canyon Star Party 2001,"Dobson discusses his work amid an array of the store's telescopes.

His charismatic personality and enthusiasm for astronomy are infectious. A nonstop talker, he's eager to tell about the twists and turns of his life that led him to his career of educating the public about the marvels of the night sky.

He says his work probably has turned on "millions of people" to astronomy. "I meet about 100,000 people a year," he says, "but I meet them in the middle of the night, so I don't know what any of them look like."

Dobson never applied for a patent for his simple telescopes, which are advertised as "Dobsonian" telescopes and sold by commercial manufacturers. He could be wealthy from his invention, but he scoffs at the idea.

"I was never interested in making money off of them," he says with a wave of his hand. "My goal always was to get people interested in astronomy and helping others make these telescopes. I had nothing to do with them putting my name on them.

"I was the one who has always made fun of naming telescopes after people, and naming these after me is silly. It's a pain in the neck, but it's helped make me well-known."

The early years

Dobson was born in 1915 in Beijing, China, where his father was a zoology professor, and his mother was a musician. "My dad had a telescope, so we did a lot of astronomy when I was a kid," says Dobson, one of four sons.

When he was 12, political upheaval in China forced the family to move to San Francisco, which Dobson still uses as his home base when he's not traveling throughout the world.

After receiving a chemistry degree in 1943 from the University of California at Berkeley, Dobson briefly worked in a defense job related to the building of the atomic bomb. But long interested in Hindu philosophy, he became a monk with the Ramakrishna Order of the Vendanta Society in San Francisco. There, and at a monastery in Sacramento where he later was transferred, he had the assignment of reconciling science with religious teachings.

While at the monastery, Dobson pursued his interest in astronomy and began making telescopes out of cardboard, wood, glass from the bottoms of five-gallon jugs and whatever other discarded material he could find.

He also used a 12-inch ship porthole to make a larger telescope. "When I first saw the three-quarter moon through it, I was astonished. I thought I was coming in for a landing."

Dobson was hooked and began making more of the large telescopes. He sneaked out of the monastery at night, taking his homemade telescopes around to the surrounding neighborhood, letting people peer through them.

"I didn't just let them look, I told them what they were looking at,"he says. "That was the important part."

But his passion for telescopes and getting others fascinated with astronomical sights wound up being costly. In 1967, after living in monasteries for 23 years, he was dismissed. "I was AWOL from the monastery a little too often, so they kicked me out," Dobson says, adding that he didn't choose to go.

On the street

With only a $50 bill, he returned to San Francisco, where his friends gave him shelter and food. It's a spartan lifestyle that he maintains as he travels throughout the country.

Dobson took the telescopes he had made at the Sacramento monastery and began setting them up on the streets of San Francisco for the public to use.

After borrowing $1,000 from his mother, he bought 4-1/2 tons of porthole glass to make the large Newtonian telescopes, which resemble small cannons.

In 1968, he launched the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers Club, the first in the country. "There were three of us in the first year, and there were 60 members by the fourth year," Dobson says. "We started to grow fast."

Members, traveling in an old bus and vans, began taking their telescopes to national parks and other public spots. The organization's success spread, with similar groups starting up across the country.

"We found that the public is not allergic to the moon," he says with characteristic wit.

Public attention to his work soared in 1989, when Smithsonian magazine carried a story about Dobson and his sidewalk astronomers. A short time later, he was featured on a PBS television series, "The Astronomers," which showed him at work at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. In addition, he twice appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

"There was even a color picture of me in TV Guide -- can you imagine that?" he says with a laugh.

Controversial views

Although no one disputes his contribution to public awareness of astronomy, his views about cosmology are controversial. His concepts run counter to mainstream astronomers' prevailing theories about the universe, especially his dismissal of the big-bang theory. "I'm allergic to the big bang," says Dobson, who argues that his theory of a "changeless, infinite and undivided universe" are more in line with those of Einstein's views. Rather than an origin of the universe that began with a big bang, his concepts focus on a "recycling" model involving hydrogen.

His views have drawn criticism from many scientists, "but he backs up his theories with up-to-date information," says Garth Eliassen of Monmouth, who is hosting Dobson's classes this summer. "I wish people would listen to him a little more.

"John got me interested in astronomy," Eliassen says. "He has a monk's commitment to what he feels is his mission -- he runs, walks and works like mad on telescopes. He's extremely dedicated."

Although an octogenarian, Dobson isn't thinking about slowing down. In the next few months, he will teach classes in Ohio, Maryland, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

"No, I'm not going to retire," he says. "This is what I love to do -- showing people the universe."