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Wall Street Journal Artical on John Dobson

By Brett Campbell
Published 2004-09-01 00:00:00

The Father of Street-Corner Stargazing

By BRETT CAMPBELL

September 1, 2004; Page D10

Eugene, Ore

When he was a child growing up in Beijing, John Dobson used to lie on his back, gaze upward, and imagine the sky was a vast ocean below him. If only he could slip the bonds of gravity, he wondered, how far would he plunge into the sky's endless depths?

Mr. Dobson has never stopped wondering about what lies beyond our home planet. Possessing a quicksilver wit, a gift for turning a phrase that makes scientific concepts accessible, and an energy that belies his nearly 90 cycles around the sun, Mr. Dobson is one of history's greatest popularizers of science.

Through his founding of the Sidewalk Astronomers of America, his invention of a simple, cheap, yet powerful telescope, his media attention (he's appeared on "The Tonight Show," PBS and dozens of radio programs), and his star parties, Mr. Dobson has brought the wonders of the universe to millions. And he's done it largely outside the scientific and academic establishments, traveling all over the world, an itinerant opener of eyes and minds. This summer alone, he's taught weeks-long classes in telescope making and cosmology in Texas, Oregon and New York. Then after a trip to Italy and a brief stay in his San Francisco basement apartment -- his "home" for only a few weeks each year -- he's off to South America.

John Dobson, an ascetic man with unorthodox cosmological views, is one of history's great popularizers of science.

Mr. Dobson's childhood curiosity about the universe has never wavered. After his parents -- both teachers -- returned to San Francisco from China in 1927, Mr. Dobson studied chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. But while he learned that science could explain much of how the universe worked, Mr. Dobson's search for deeper meaning led him in 1944 to join San Francisco's Vedanta monastery, where he found that the pre-Buddhist philosophy that originated in India complemented rather than contradicted science and empirical observation. (He's now completing a book that he hopes will reconcile quantum physics with ancient mysticism.)

In the early 1950s, Mr. Dobson spied a 12-inch piece of porthole glass on a friend's table and realized that it could be polished with sand into a reflecting telescope mirror. As an ascetic monk with no money, he was forced to scrounge for materials, cobbling the mount from such humble objects as a plywood box, the cardboard cores of garden hose reels, and roof shingles. Then he pointed his homemade contraption at the moon -- and was astonished by how much detail he could see. Craters, mountains, crags leapt to life. "It was like I was coming in for a landing," he says. His eventual design for an affordable Newtonian reflecting telescope would later be named the Dobsonian.

Mr. Dobson started lending telescopes to kids who'd see him stargazing on the streets of San Francisco, and then teaching them to make their own. Eventually his absences led to his dismissal from the monastery. A few months later, in 1968, he co-founded the Sidewalk Astronomers, headquartered in a retired school bus that made hundreds of trips around California for star parties. Its two-dozen chapters now include Sao Paulo, Liverpool, Moscow and British Columbia. And Mr. Dobson still lives like a monk, shunning possessions as he stays with members and friends on his travels around the world, teaching people to build telescopes and to understand what they see with them.

At a recent appearance in Eugene, Ore., Mr. Dobson briskly enters a planetarium crowded with children and adults eager to hear his unorthodox view of cosmology. He flings hundreds of small fliers in the air, and as they flutter through the crowd, Mr. Dobson launches into his condemnation of the Big Bang -- which he dismisses as the idea that "nothing made everything out of nothing." Citing sources as old as Einstein's groundbreaking 1905 Special Theory of Relativity and as recent as current papers in astronomy, Mr. Dobson makes the case for a universe that has always existed. Much of his explanation is lost on anyone not conversant with recent developments in astrophysics, and seems unlikely to persuade the overwhelming majority of physicists who have for decades subscribed to the Big Bang theory.

But regardless of the ultimate outcome of that debate, Mr. Dobson's real legacy is apparent in what happens after his lecture, when the audience moves outside to find a dozen or more telescopes set up and pointing at the evening sky.The members of the telescope class Mr. Dobson has been teaching for the past month are showing off their new scopes, assembled for a few hundred dollars from hardware-store components. (A Dobsonian can be made for as little as $20 if you don't take shortcuts.) They've been setting up on busy street corners for the past week, drawing crowds of curious viewers young and old. Some of the cylinders stretch to eight feet long and more than a foot in diameter, and it's a wonder that the sight of a half-dozen or more mortar-like tubes pointed skyward doesn't prompt a visit from Homeland Security.

"Awesome!" cries one teenager. "Wow!" marvels another. Despite the ready availability of recent TV and Internet images of Saturn's rings, passersby and students alike are clearly amazed by what they can spy through a telescope lens: Jupiter's bands, other galaxies, and a three-quarter moon whose surface is so distinct it seems you could almost spot the American flag at Tranquility Base. Small scopes can make big discoveries, like the planet discovered last month in a constellation 500 light years from Earth by astronomers using a four-inch telescope (a third the diameter of some of these), or the nebula nabbed by a Kentucky amateur astronomer's three-incher in January.

Mr. Dobson's affected irascibility vanishes as he ushers bystanders over to peer through the eyepieces. For him, gazing beyond the earthbound features that humans evolved to perceive is a way to overcome what he calls our "genetic programming" -- mistaken notions such as the earth being flat, and the sun revolving around it. Both the Vedantans and the quantum physicists understand that what we perceive is merely an apparition, and Mr. Dobson challenges us to see beyond our egocentric, earthbound point of view to glimpse the strange beauty of the reality beneath and beyond. Just as the young Mr. Dobson was able to envision the sky as an ocean below him, what he really wants viewers to see through their telescopes is a new perspective.

Recently a puzzled park ranger, spotting Mr. Dobson leading one of his frequent star parties at Yellowstone National Park, asked the old stargazer if he considered the sky to be part of the park. "No," he replied, "the park is part of the sky."