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John Dobson: Amateur Astronomy's Revolutionary

By Daniel Sordid
Published 2004-10-22 16:46:45
From space.com, May 5, 2000

Strutting around the lawn of the Vedanta monastery in Hollywood, California, John Dobson, cracks the whip on a rag-tag assembly of wannabe astronomers who are grinding their slabs of glass into the shape of a telescope mirror.

Grey ponytail wagging, he swaggers around the group. His ratty clothes mask sophistication -- while he genuinely wants everyone to do his or her best, in his eyes no one is grinding quite right.

Having taught the craft for over 30 years, Dobson, 84, admits his patience is wearing thin. "No, not like that," he barks at one young boy. "Longer strokes! Longer strokes!"

A group of 20 or so have assembled at the spiritual enclave of the Vedanta society -- a religious order of chaste monks and nuns who believe in a religion inspired by Hinduism -- to learn the art of building cheap and powerful telescopes.

"He's my guru," said Durga Pobre, a retired real-estate saleswoman taking the class. "I love the stars. I love the sky. It's like giving birth to a telescope."

Said James Neff, a computer-network technician in Los Angeles: "It's a whole different feel when you do it yourself."

Despite Dobson's short temper, they are learning from the master. As a younger man, Dobson revolutionized the world of amateur astronomy with his cheap telescopes that were as powerful, sometimes more so, than those that professionals were using. His telescopes use porthole glass, cardboard and other seemingly random items that can either be assembled individually or purchased for a few hundred dollars as a kit.

A living legend among sky-watching enthusiasts, Dobson has inspired skywatchers around the world with his devotion. Since he was a younger man, he spent his nights with friends at local parks, setting up his telescopes to give the public a chance to see the sky. All of this is done without charge, of course. Groups of "sidewalk astronomers" have popped up around the world -- all inspired by Dobson.

"He's an incredibly passionate man, driven to tell the world about the universe," said Blaine Bagget, head of media relations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "He is on a spiritual quest as well as a scientific one. I deeply respect the simplicity of his life, which is played out in the design of the Dobsonian telescope. That was a tremendous achievement."

Dobson, a former Vedanta monk, was thrown out of the order for being absent from the monastery on too many occasions: He was out showing off his telescopes at local parks.

Today, seemingly robust as ever, he relies on the support of friends to sustain his travels around the country. In addition to his fervor for telescopes, Dobson is also a passionate cosmologist, whose theories tend toward the mystical. In cosmological speeches, he insists he is the follow-on to Einstein. His eloquence brings him a cult-like following.

Dobson grew up in China, the grandson of the founder of Peking University. When he was 12, violence led his family to leave on a boat bound for San Francisco.

Growing up poor in the California Bay Area, Dobson said he was a thoughtful child uninspired by the institutions around him, especially school and Christianity.

"I could see that these two notions cannot arise in the same being: 'do unto others as you would that they do unto' and 'if you're not a good boy, its into hell for keeps,'" he said in an interview at the Vedanta monastery in Hollywood, California. "There's no way that these two notions arise in the same being. They must be spoofing us. So I became an atheist, a belligerent atheist. If anybody started a conversation about the subject, I was a belligerent atheist."

For Dobson, an alternative to this dichotomy came in 1944 when he attended a lecture by a monk from the Vedanta order, a spiritual sect that takes its inspiration from Hinduism and instructs its followers to accept all religions as valid. The monk, said Dobson, revealed to him a world he had never seen.

His spiritual conversion came during a tumultuous era. It was during the height of World War 2, and Dobson, then a university student, was working for the U.S. Government assisting with the atomic bomb program. He chose another route: he became a Vedanta monk.

Dobson became a dedicated Vedanta follower, but it was a passion for the sky that would lead him to be ejected, an action he felt at the time was worse than death.

One of John's responsibilities at the monastery was to reconcile astronomy with the teachings of Vedanta. That job led him to build telescopes on the side. He took to wheeling them around outside the monastery, fascinating the neighbors who would congregate around him.

"First, I make a telescope and wheel them around the neighborhood," he remembered, "and some kid would see me. He would ask me what it is. I said 'It's a telescope, do you want to borrow it?' Of course he wants to borrow it!

"Then, I sneak out at night, I shoot my trap at the eye piece so the people in the neighborhood know what the hell they're seeing. There's no use in just letting them look. There's no use in it. Someone has to tell them what the hell they're seeing out there."

But those times outside the monastery compound raised suspicion in the eyes of the leaders. "You're not expected to be AWOL," he said. "In the military, they just shoot you. In the monastery, it's much worse. In the monastery, if you're AWOL, they presume that you did it. So that's a big problem in a monastic life."

In fact, the day the leaders of the monastery kicked him out -- in 1967, after 23 years of being a monk -- John insists he was simply reading just outside the walls of the compound. But the anger of the monastery's leaders could not be overcome. John was kicked out.

"I felt as though the worse of possible things had already befallen me, what can death do to me now," he said. "I felt that way for a long time. But now I feel that this job that I was assigned to do I could not have gotten done if I was still there. I got that job done."

What John did was revolutionize the world of amateur astronomy. Whereas professional astronomers insist on exact readings and precise measurements, the amateur world is generally more interested in the sheer wonders of the sky. Before Dobson developed his telescopes, amateur astronomers could hardly compete with professionals in the observing power of their scopes.

But with John's telescope construction methods -- commonly called 'Dobsonian' -- amateurs can craft their own telescopes cheaply using basic materials that could be fished out from a garbage dump.

John has been teaching the methods of telescope building across the country and has toured with a group of self-described Sidewalk Astronomers. He's toured the national parks in a ratty van full of different sized telescopes to watch the night sky and the sun. His son -- the product of a relationship John had with a woman he met while teaching adult education class in California -- toured with John summer after summer as a child.

Today, as an old man with a strong constitution and an even stronger sense of purpose, he lives humbly and is supported by friends, in the style of an ascetic. He has shown immense care for life: once, he spent all his money supporting a friend who had contracted cancer, driving her regularly to Mexico for treatment. He also exhibits thoughtfulness for bugs and plants. His treatment of his students is a kind of tough love.

No amount of exhaustion could take away John's contribution to amateur astronomy. He has inspired telescope builders worldwide, and greatly increased the power of telescopes used by amateur astronomers.

His cosmology theories have also attracted a following. His theories blend Vedanta spirituality with his experiences watching the sky.

His theories go against standard cosmology. "I'm allergic to the Big Bang," he said.

Some say his cosmology takes away from his aura, and many scientists see his theories as over the top.

He has written "if the world is indeed apparitional, then underlying it there must exist something which is not in space and time, and which must therefore be changeless, infinite and undivided (not in time, and not limited or divided by space). And since it must underlie the apparition, it must show through (just as the length and diameter of a rope show through in the snake for which it is mistaken)."

Says Sue French, a contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine: "John's pretty heavy into non-standard cosmology. A lot of that revolves into an Eastern monastic outlook on life. Magical mystery tour. His talks are becoming like a Rocky Horror Picture Show where you could bring the props. When he said, 'In the absence of nothing there must be something,' that threw me."

Dobson believes his theories surpass Einstein's. And though his cosmology -- dense with talk about oneness, illusions, gravity, and electricity -- have not been accepted by academia, for the most part, Dobson says it's only a matter of time before he is recognized as a genius.

Despite critics of his cosmology, Dobson's reputation has spread worldwide. "Sidewalk" astronomer organizations have popped up around the country and around the world.

Dobson's devotion to stargazing is complete. He sees humanity, and specifically his followers, as descendants of a long line of visionaries who with every generational passing improved our capacity to understand. It has that capacity Dobson has written which "sets us apart amongst the watchers of the skies."