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Owen Hoffman's JD Interview

Published 2004-10-22 16:24:16

Date: July 31, 2004

Place: Peyton Room, Crater Lake Lodge, Crater Lake National Park

Interviewee: John Lowery Dobson, 88

Interviewer: F. Owen Hoffman

Forward by Owen Hoffman:

During the Leonid meteor showers of November 2001, my wife and I camped out at 5,000 feet on top of Hooper's Bald in the Cherokee National Forest of North Carolina. The wonders of the night sky that evening prompted me to begin to seek to learn more about the stars and galaxies above.

I began my venture into astronomy by reading beginners guides and then by purchasing my first astronomical binoculars. By February, 2002, I had purchased my first telescope. It was a Dobsonian. Coincidentally, I had had the good fortune of traveling to Los Angeles in the following week, and met a member of the Sidewalk Astronomers at a telescope store in Woodland Hills. He heard that I had just purchased a Dobsonian telescope and asked if I would like to meet John Dobson himself. I was directed to Griffith Park Observatory that evening, where John Dobson was out with the Sidewalk Astronomers with their home made Dobsonians, inviting all within earshot to have a look up at the moon and the planets.

I was instantaneously convinced of the merits of sidewalk astronomy as practiced by JD. I asked him if he had ever considered taking sidewalk astronomy to the national parks. He laughed, and said, "Of course! National Parks are the only places where the seeing is good enough and the public numerous and curious enough to allow us to show off the wonders of the night sky using large telescopes like our home made 24 incher." I asked whether or not he had been to Yosemite, and he said, "That was one of the very first parks visited by the Sidewalk Astronomers." I asked him had he been to Crater Lake, and he said, "oh yes, several times."?

I told him that I was a former park ranger-naturalist at Crater Lake and he immediately began to tell me of the kind hospitality offered to him by park rangers Hank Tanski and John Salinas. He also said he knew of Tom McDonough. But, since the closing of the Rim Center (the Community House) he found it difficult to give public presentations that he believed were important introductions and a necessary pre-requisite to the use of telescopes for a large audience at the Rim, so he had stopped visiting Crater Lake.

Knowing that it was the year of the park's Centennial, I immediately sent out e-mail to all who I knew remembered John Dobson's park visits. I then suggested to the NPS that a Crater Lake Star Party be organized as a part of the park's centennial celebration and that JD be part of this event. As it turned out, this was not to be. The park had other priorities that summer, and night sky interpretation was not among the specific activities planned for the park's centennial.

Not to give up on a good idea, I proceeded on to promote the possibility of bringing John Dobson back to Crater Lake and promoting the value of dark skies above national parks as a national resource.

Perhaps as the result of my relentless efforts to promote a night sky program in the park, the NPS began to promote interpretive night sky activities among its special programs, with long-term park interpreter and astronomy instructor Tom McDonough who dedicated personal time and the use of his telescope for public viewings at Rim Village.

These NPS activities attracted large audiences for the Mars perihelion opposition of August 27th, 2003 and again were repeated to coincide with the visit of the National Parks Foundation in September of that year.

On July 30th and 31st, 2004, John Dobson returned to Crater Lake as a guest of the Crater Lake Institute to receive the Institute's annual award for excellence in public service "for inspiring dreams about places beyond Earth through pioneering sidewalk astronomy in our national parks and forests, where curiosity and dark skies meet." As a part of this invitation, the Crater Lake Institute sponsored public presentations by JD at Pioneer Hall in Ashland, OR, the Ft. Klamath County Museum in Ft. Klamath, OR, and at Diamond Lake Resort in the Umpquah National Forest. No formal presentations, however, were given within the park proper.

The following oral interview with John Dobson was conducted in the Peyton room at Crater Lake Lodge, with myself, the interviewer, functioning as a Volunteer-in-the Parks for NPS historian Steve Mark.

An Interview with John Lowery Dobson, July 31, 2004, Crater Lake, OR.

John, could you give us some information about your personal history:

I was born on Sept. 14, 1915, in the usual place, China. Peking, China. My mother also was born there and her father was the founder of Peking University.

Because of political unrest in China, we came to this country in 1927, and settled in San Francisco, California. Since moving from China to the USA, most of the time I have lived in San Francisco, except for a 9-year period when I lived in the monastery in Sacramento, California. But nowadays, I live all over the place.

In Peking, (Bejing), my brothers and I attended the Peking American school, but my parents were not pleased with what was being taught there. So after a while,they opened a school at home.

In San Francisco, I attended grade school and Lowell High School, a college preparatory school where my father taught biology and zoology.

In 1934 I attended the University of California at Berkeley and majored in Chemistry. In those days we paid only $54 a year for tuition. We had two years of mandatory ROTC military training.

I first went to the university to study biochemistry with the avowed purpose of keeping Einstein alive, so he could to figure this whole bloody thing out. I was terribly interested in Einstein and gravity. Ever since I was a child in Peking I was fascinated by Einstein and gravity.

But I didn't go straight through the University. After about two years at Berkeley, I became fed up, so I quit school. After a couple of more years, I went back. But I quit again after just one semester. I didn't graduate until 1943.

Of course, I never did succeed in keeping Einstein alive. I also didn't realize that I was going to inherit his problem. But I did inherit his problem.

There are some things that Einstein did in 1905 that were terribly important. Einstein took his physics seriously, but not his geometry and he probably never saw that his E = mc2 was being mis-interpreted by those teaching relativity. According to Einstein, E = m. The c squared is just how many ergs makes a gram. But Einstein's equation was being taught all over the planet as E + m = k. Einstein never made that mistake, and he apparently never saw how it was being taught.

Someone in Hollywood once asked me, why didn't Einstein clean up the academic community? After all, he was around until 1955. But probably he never saw how it was being taught. Who would have had the gaul to teach relatively in front of Einstein?

So, I graduated from the university in 1943. At that time, we had to choose between a war related job or a rifle. The only holiday we had off at school was Christmas Day. We got Easter off, because it was Sunday. I did war work for Cal Tech and Berkeley for about a year and a half, and then in 1944, the Swami allowed me to join the monastery, but I had to get out of the Manhatten Project through a double interview with the FBI. The second man asked me "Do you think that the best thing that you can do for your country at the present time is to join a monastery?". "Yes," I said. He said,"You might be surprised but many people feel like that." I was surprised, and wondered How does he know?

So joining the monastery had nothing to do with the war related work you were doing at the time?

Not particularly.

I was a belligerent atheist when I heard Swami Ashokananda in 1937. It was at a Sunday lecture, but when that man opened his mouth, I knew I had made a mistake. Either there's something underneath this Universe that I hadn't noticed or this man's not here. By 1940, I knew there was also something to do about it, and I wanted to join the monastery. So I went to Swami for instruction, and he sent me back to the University.

By the time I entered the Vedanta monastery in 1944, I knew that the Universe was made of hydrogen and that the principle energy on which the Universe runs was gravitational collapse. Gravity causes the hydrogen to fall together to galaxies and stars. But, I wanted to make a telescope to watch it .

So your interest in astronomy occurred before you had a telescope?

When I was a child my father had one of those stupid refractors. But it was without a mount, we simply leaned it against something to view through it. I remember when I was in grade school making drawings of Jupiter and its moons on different nights. These pictures were made on dark blue paper, two feet tall and a foot and one-half wide. They were really big pictures.

So when did you decide to make your first telescope?

While I was in the monastery in San Francisco, I became intensely interested in actually seeing what was out there. I wanted to see it happening. My friend said that I could grind my own glass, and I said, "You're nuts." But that was quite a few years after I entered the monastery.

We began making our first telescope using 12 inch porthole glass. We ground it against another 12 inch porthole glass that we found in a salvage shop at the foot of Filbert St. in San Franciso. We ground one glass against the other with carborundum which we got in San Francisco.

When I first saw the third quarter Moon through that 12 incher, I thought, "My God, it looks as if I'm coming in for a landing." And I thought, "Lordy, Lordy, everyone has to see this!" And that's what happened to me. This was about 1956 or 1957.

In 1958 I was shifted to the Vedanta monastery in Sacramento. Then, in 1967 I left the monastery because I was reported missing while weeding in front of the front wall. We founded the Sidewalk Astronomers in 1968.

Could you tell us something about the Sidewalk Astronomers?

We are a public service organization. What we do is get telescopes out for other people. We almost never set up a telescope to look through it ourselves. But when we run the telescopes for the public, we get to see what's up there.

We locate objects in the night sky by sighting the object off of the rocker box. But for the 24 incher, we had a guide scope. But even then, I would climb the ladder to pull the telescope around. We didn't need a guide scope to find things. We knew were they were.

When did you get the idea to take your telescopes to the national parks?

In 1969, we were invited to the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference. We Sidewalk Astronomers don't spin our wheels for such conferences. We spin them for public service. But my friend, Brian Rhodes, and I had the gaul to consider going to Mexico to see the eclipse of the sun. We could never afford to pay for such a trip. So we decided that we would go to Riverside.

The Sidewalk Astronomers are astronomical entertainers by appointment to Her Majesty the American Public, and we run though the national parks and monuments, Indian Reservations, State parks and so forth, and we've been up to Canada and down to Mexico.

But what was your first visit to a park? Which was your first park?

I'm not sure. It might have been Yosemite or it might have been Death Valley. It was when the 24 incher was new. We needed to take it to dark sky locations to see what the telescope could do. I think it was in 1971 that we went out every two weeks and we saw the entire surface of the red planet.

Brian Rhodes knew what to do to complete the building of that telescope. I think we first took the 24 incher to Glacier Point. It beat the heck out of what we thought it could do.

We often would stay for two weeks at a park, but someone had to stay with the telescopes during the day to be sure that no one turned them to the Sun .

Once at Death Vally a father put his little kid down the front end of an 18 incher. And when I complained, he said, "Why are they here if they're not to be played in?" And at Glacier Point in Yosemite we had kids climbing on the 18 and the 24.

At Crater Lake the naturalist, Hank Tanski, got us a food allowance. And at Zion National Park, when the treasuer of the Natural History Association heard that more than three thousand people had used our equpment in six days and nights. he wrote us out a check for $500. And in Death Valley, ranger Bill Clarke, made us unpaid employees of the Death Valley National Monument. This allowed us to be covered for insurance purposes and we could camp without being charged fees. And it was he who invited us first to the Grand Canyon National Park.

Was there anyone in the National Park Service, in particular, whom you believe recognized the potential of the Sidewalk Astronomers as park partners and park volunteers?

Yes, Chief Naturalist at Yosemite, Dave Karraker, had things figured out. He 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." He also suggested that we could build an amphitheater where the chemical toilets then stood, and that after the ranger's evening talk at Overhanging Rock we could give a slide show at the amphitheater. He envisioned that we would have several telescopes arranged along a pathway were the old Glacier Point Hotel had been and have people walk from telescope to telescope down to where the basement of the old hotel used to be to look though the 24 incher. Unfortunately, Dave Karraker left Yosemite and no such thing was ever done.

I think we Sidewalk Astronomers must have visited more than 12 National Parks and Monuments since 1968. We have visited Indian Reservations, State Parks, and many other places and we've been up to Canada and down to Mexico.

You also visited the Grand Canyon, didn't you?

We were at the Grand Canyon Natioal Park from 1978 through 1981. In 1980, we were asked to estimate how many people looked through our telescopes and attended our slide shows. We stayed there 16 days and nights and it was about 20,000 people. We had a whole flock of telescopes.

Each winter, in Death Valley which is now a National Park, we are there with telescopes and slide shows between Christmas and New Year. We use sun telescopes by day and our larger telescopes by night.

One time, at the Grand Canyon, after the general public had left, a group of Australian astronomers spent the whole rest of the night sketching galaxies at our 24 incher because many of the galaxies visible in the Northern Hemisphere are not accessible for night viewing below the equator.

Not every thing has worked out well in the National Parks. In 1981, we received from the Park Naturalist at the Grand Canyon a copy of a letter that he had received saying, "We don't need to be exposed to such controversial views in the National Parks."

Can you elaborate on this letter you received in 1981?

The writer put all his pet peeves against the scientists in that letter against me, and quoted me as saying all sorts of things I never say. The Naturalist sent me acopy of the letter and asked us not to return. I stayed away for fourteen years.

When we came to the Grand Canyon in the 1970's we gave our slide shows in the Yavapai Point Museum, and there was this marvelous exhibit at the west entrance to the Museum. They had samples of all the rocks that form the wall of the Canyon stacked up in order at that door, from the Vishnu schist at the bottom to the sandstone at the top. Each one was labled, what it was and when it was formed, and who lived there then, was it dinosaurs or what. It was the best exhibit that I ever saw at a National Park. When the Museum was remodeled, before 1981, that beautiful exhibit was removed. We were very sad to find it gone. And I don't know why it was removed. In the 70's the astronomical slide shows were held in the Museum. All of the slide shows are now out of doors in the wind. That is not so good.

Have you ever been back to the Grand Canyon since that time?

As I said, I've never returned on my own to the Grand Canyon since 1981. Others, however, have taken me back.

Dean Kettleson, from Tucson, Arizona, has organized an annual star party at the Grand Canyon and has recognized me as the founder of the Grand Canyon Star Party. [This star party is now world famous and attracts amateur astronomers from all over the globe.] He has invited me back several times.

But the present Grand Canyon Star Party, unlike our 16 day event, is held for only one week. They don't do the Moon. I'd like to get the Grand Canyon Star Party extended to two weeks, one week without Moon and one week with it.

I was last at the Grand Canyon in 2001.

When I came to the Grand Canyon Star Party, I first thought that it was a real shame that we didn't bring our 24 inch telescope. But then I realized that we didn't really need it. There are a whole flock of telescopes out there for this event.

Can you say something about your experiences at Crater Lake?

I can't recall all the times we visited Crater Lake. It was many times. I don't think it was annually, but certainly many times during the course of the years. I remember one time when we came to Crater Lake from Glacier Point in Yosemite. The tube of the 24 incher had been drenched by a heavy rainstorm. It was too heavy for use. But Hank Tanski and John Salinas got us all sorts of heavy weights, about 40 lbs of steel, so that the telescope could be used at the Rim. They put traffic cones on the parking area to reserve the space for our telescopes and we could give slide presentations in the Community House after the formal talks given by park naturalists. It is important to give astronomical slide shows, before letting the visiters look through the telescopes, otherwise the visiters may not understand what they see.

We are grateful for the help of Hank Tanski and John Salinas. Hank would even let us shower in his house at Park Headquarters. And he even arranged subsidies for our meals ($7.00 a day if we ate on our own and $12.00 if we ate in the restaurant).

Over how many summers did the Sidewalk Astronomers visit Crater Lake?

I can't recall, but certainly it was several summers in a row. We would stay for a week or two, several of us. Unfortunately, we have no written accounts of our activities at Crate Lake, and no photographs. We never had cameras. I think our first visit was in the late 1970's and our last was in the 1990's. We gave slide shows before letting the visitors use the telescopes. We would tell people that if they want to see something else please get back in line and when you come back to the ladder tell us, "I've seen them dumb stars," and we would then show them something else.

One time a lady came to the foot of the 12 foot ladder and said, "I've seen them dumb stars". It was the ranger! [laughter]. And we got her something else.

Usually we start with all the telescopes on the planets, or the Moon, and then, after mothers with little kids would leave, we take requests and show them what they want to see, star clusters, galaxies etcetera.

But one year, when we had been in the park for some time. I noticed that the back of my van was filled with food. I had no idea where this food came from. We inquired around, then asked the ladies who worked at the Lodge. They were the girlfriends of the boys who worked on the boats. It was the boat crew who purchased all that food. They had sandwiches, fruit, and all sorts of delicious stuff. They had put all of that food in the back of my van. God bless 'em!

We used to do the boat trip and while down on the lake, we used to use our hands to scape up the pollen floating on the surface of the lake and we would consume it. It was very good food, but no delicacy. It's the biggest pollen source that I've ever seen.

I remember coming to Crater Lake in early July and having thirty foot snow banks. We would put our milk in the snow banks. We even went through a blizzard at Crater Lake on the 4th of July.

One time at Crater Lake, we had our telescopes set up at the Rim Village area. A man came up to me and said, "These look like Dobsonians." I said, "Yes, I'm Dobson." The man replied as he shook my hand, "It's not often you get to shake hands with a Newton!" [laughter].

When was your last visit to Crater Lake?

It wasn't long ago. Perhaps 7 years ago or so. It wasn't as good as when Hank Tanski was here. There was no place to give a slide show. The Community House was closed. There were no facilities available to us for showers. We were unable to shower for 5 days. The rangers weren't interested in even looking through our 36 incher .

Is this your only time you have visited Crater Lake without a telescope?

Yes, I've never come without a telescope. It feels very strange not to have one. I feel like a tourist. Especially now, in this room at the Lodge. I used to sleep in my van . Sometimes we would sleep in the telescopes when they're not set up. And you can't roll out of bed.

In the National Parks we have to see that no visitor points a night telescope at the Sun. So the Sidewalk Astronomer who is running the fail-safe sun telescope, keeps his eye on the rest. The 18 incher wears a sign, "For night use only."

Can you share other experiences you've had in the parks?

They couldn't use us in the Grand Tetons and didn't want us in Yellowstone. But we've been to Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Zion, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Craters of the Moon, Rocky Mountain National Park and many other places. We still go to Death Valley almost every winter between Christmas and New Year, and some kid came to me and said, "If we go to an observatory, we get to look through a single telescope at a single object, and that's the end of the evening. 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." That time we had a 24 incher, two 18's, a 16, and some smaller stuff.

The rangers don't always understand what we're about. One time at Glacier Point the security ranger told us that our 24 incher would have to be taken down before dark. [laughter]. Another time we were told that the sky was not part of the park. I countered, "but the park is part of the sky!".

Once at Glacier Point in Yosemite an 11 year old kid told me, "Yours is the only program in the National Parks that's not geared to a 9 year old!"

It is very important that the night sky above our national parks be treasured as a national resource. Many park visitors have told us that they come to the parks to see the night sky, but to see deeper into the night sky and to bring it within the reach of their understanding, they need telescopes .

We were once asked, "What is the connection between the Sidewalk Astronomers and the national park rangers?" I said, "We entertain the visitors with telescopes, the rangers entertain them with parks."

We have been told by many people who tour the National Parks in summer, that finding the Sidewalk Astronomers in a National Park has been the highlight of their summer tour. Others have said, "It's not just the telescopes, it's the slide show you give in the evening." Some have also said "It's not even the slide shows, it's the talks you give on Relativity and Quantum Mechanics in the slide shows."

Is there anything specific you would like to say about Crater Lake National Park in particular?

Yes, I would. Crater Lake is to the Cascades what Saturn is to the Solar System.