John Dobson: The Sidewalk Astronomer
John Dobson’s (1915-2014) story is compelling. He was an American born in Beijing, China. His mother was a musician and his father taught zoology at Peking University. His maternal grandfather had founded the University.
In 1927, the Dobson family relocated to San Francisco. Young John was a self-described belligerent atheist. Dobson graduated from UC Berkley with a degree in Chemistry and went to work on The Atom Bomb project during World War II.
In 1944, a lecture shifted the direction of Dobson’s young life. He heard a Vedantan swami speak. He later said the swami, “Revealed a world I had never before seen.” Soon joined a Vendantan monastery where he spent the next 23 years.
His primary task was to square modern astronomy with Vedantan teachings. In pursuit of this goal, he started building telescopes and going out into the local community to share stargazing opportunities. He quickly found a calling to spread astronomy to the masses.
By 1968, he helped found San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. He’d literally set up a telescope in busy city locations and let people look at what could be seen within a city - mostly the sun, moon, and the planets. Eventually, his desire to bring astronomy to more people led him to create the Dobsonian Telescope. These were large telescopes that could help amateur astronomers see into deep space. However, they could be made relatively cheaply from readily available materials. This revolutionized amateur astronomy.
He realized that he needed to find dark skies and crowds to take his endeavor to the next level. He began touring national parks, doing presentations and allowing people view the universe. He called these “star parties” and the label stuck. Today there are star parties all over the US and the world.
Dobson was brilliant and a character. He entertained his audiences and made astronomy fun. His scientific background allowed him to hob-knob with professional physicists and astronomers and to develop his own theories. By the end of his life, he’d rejected the Big Bang Theory as an explanation of creation.
Below are some quotes I gathered from various talks and TV appearances he made over the years. I think they really bring this amazing man back to life for all of us.
Everybody is born curious. Everybody wants to see this universe. Everybody wants to understand this universe. They’re just waiting for someone to present it to them. Everybody wants to understand this thing in his guts.
If there were a million amateur astronomers with telescopes and they were willing to let a few thousand people each look through their telescopes, there would be a chance for all the people in this world who wanted to see to see.
The fact is that the parks already have the best seeing conditions. If we’re going to get the telescopes to where the public is associated with the best seeing conditions, we have to do it in the national parks.
There’s something inside you that drives you to understand this universe. It’s not something you have to think about.
Why is the universe like this? Why isn’t it some other way? Why isn’t the universe made out of butter? Why does it have to be made of these little tiny things that you can’t cut up any further?
I used to wheel that telescope around the streets. Some kid would say, ‘What’s that?’ I’d say, ‘It’s a telescope. Do you want to borrow it?’ Well of course he wants to borrow it.
The universe is made of three ingredients- hydrogen and helium and the dust of exploded stars. The earth is made from the dust of exploded stars.
The reason I got into this telescope-making world is because I wanted to make it possible for people to see this world. That’s why we made these user-friendly telescopes. They’re not designed to entertain photographic plates. They’re for entertaining soft, warm eyes because seeing things in photographs is very different thing from seeing them with your eyes through a telescope.
The population of this earth is several billion. All those eyes are waiting to see. All those ears are waiting to hear. All those minds are eager to understand. And somebody’s got this job to do.
I want people to see the universe because if they don’t see it they won’t wonder about it; then they’re dead. What’s the use of someone who doesn’t wonder? It’s the hallmark of our species.
When I joined the monastery, I was working in the atom bomb project in the Second World War. I was working for the University of California in the radiation lab. In the monastery, I became keenly tied up in these cosmological problems. So, I wanted to see what the universe looked like. So, I helped somebody make a telescope. Through that telescope, we saw the third quarter moon. As soon as I saw that third quarter moon, it looked as if we were coming in for a landing, I couldn’t believe that the moon would look like that. I thought my God, I mean inside of me, it said everyone has got to see this.
Somebody sticks around when he feels that he has something to do. You know, old people that don’t feel like they have something to do and their friends don’t love them anymore; they die fast. People who have something to do and friends they care about; they don’t die out like that. I’m one of those guys.
I like to make fun of the Big Bang. I’m allergic to the Big Bang. The Big Bang people wanted to get everything out of nothing. They want us to believe that nothing made everything out of nothing.
It’s impossible to get everything out of nothing. Even if you did get everything out of nothing, you still have the difficulty that it’s in a black hole.
The Big Bang is impossibility cubed.
There are a lot of people who like to invent harder ways to do things. I let them do it.
If information comes in answer to a question, we have some use for it. If it doesn’t answer a question , we have another ear to let it out.
All the elements in the universe ate made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. It’s made out of electricity. Don’t you see how screwy it is? The thing (universe) is made out of electricity.