John Dobson - A Brief Biography
John Dobson has been called the "Pied Piper of Astronomy," the "Star Monk," and the "MacGuyver
of Astronomy." He is arguably one the most influential personalities in amateur astronomy in the last 50 years. He has
almost single-handedly revolutionized backyard astronomy by bringing it out to the street, making it accessible for anyone
who has ever looked up in wonder, and asked "Why?"
Dobson was born in Peking (Beijing), China, on September 14, 1915. His maternal grandfather was the founder of Peking University.
His mother was a musician; his father taught Zoology at the University.
John and his family moved the to San Francisco due to political and social unrest in China. John had 3 brothers: Ernest, Lowry,
and Harrison. John's father accepted a teaching position at Lowell High School and taught there from 1927, until he retired
in the 1950's.
After completing a degree in Chemistry at the University of California
at Berkeley in 1943, John and worked in a number of defense-related jobs. John was what he describes at a "belligerent"
atheist. Attending a service at the Vedanta center in San Francisco, he realized they were on to something and soon after,
he joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco in 1944, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. He spent the next 23 years
in the Monastery. When he joined the Order, known for its intellectual rigor and public service, he was given the assignment
of reconciling the teachings of religion with those of science.
from the university as a chemist, he wanted to see for himself what the Universe looked like, so John built his first telescope
in 1956. It was a 2", made from a lens he got in a junk store and an eyepiece from an old pair of Zeiss binoculars; through
it, he could see the rings of Saturn. One of his fellow monks told him that it was possible to grind a telescope mirror, so
John then made his first mirror out of a marine-salvage 12" porthole glass. When he looked at the third-quarter moon
with his finished telescope, he was surprised and deeply moved by what he saw. His first thought was, "Everybody's got
to see this."
So began John's long commitment to public-service in astronomy.
John was transferred to the Vedanta Monastery in Sacramento in 1958 and started
getting seriously involved in telescope making. The first telescope he made at Sacramento was a 5-inch reflector; the mirror
made from the cut-out bottom of a discarded gallon jug. It was John's greatest delight to share the beautiful things he saw
through the telescopes with others. One of his friends was so amazed by what he saw through the 5-inch telescope, that he
told John, "You've got to make something bigger!", and donated some salvaged portholes.
portholes had to be smuggled into the monastery in fertilizer boxes. John also had to screen his own sand for grinding and
made his own rouge out of garden supplies (ferrous sulfate and oxalic acid). All of this had to be done without attracting
the attention of those members of the monastery who felt that his continued telescope making and public service astronomy
were not an appropriate pursuit for monks or the best use of his time.
job of grinding mirrors had to be done under water to deaden the sound. Since John was a monk and had no money, he had to
find a way to mount the mirrors using scrap materials that could be gathered up at no cost. His telescopes were made from
discarded hose reels, lumber core cut-outs from school house doors, and scrap wood.
was the humble origin of what has come to be known as the "Dobsonian" telescope. These are Newtonian telescopes.
A Dobsonian mount is really a type of alt-azimuth telescope mount. What makes its so unique is its simplicity, it moves up
and down, left and right.
John never thought of getting a patent for his design
although many suggested it. It's like re-inventing a cup, we've had cups all along, and if you try to patent a cup with a
handle, you can't. While patenting his design might have been difficult, it wouldn't have been difficult to copyright the
name "Dobsonian", but that was never something John even considered. His mission was to get as many telescopes out
there as possible by making it as easy as possible, not making it harder with restrictions.
desire that drove John to make more and larger telescopes, and to put himself in increasing peril of expulsion by monastic
authorities, was to give everybody the opportunity to see the Universe first-hand. He put discarded wagon wheels on his telescopes
to facilitate wheeling them around the residential neighborhood surrounding the monastery - delighting kids and adults with
the views of the night sky.
Naturally, when people started to look through John's
telescopes some of the neighbors and their kids wanted John to help them make their own telescopes. He realized that this
would make his life more difficult because his AWOL hours from the monastery would increase. Nevertheless, he continued and
expanded his activities, till he was asked to leave the monastery in the Spring of 1967, after 23 years as a monk. Ironically,
the "last straw" event was a mistake, they thought John was absent with his telescope but in fact he was weeding
the lawn out side the wall, out of sight. He was not expelled because the monks were against his telescope making, but because
it was perceived to be taking time away from his monastic duties.
With no "profession"
and an overwhelming desire to show the night sky, John decided to dedicate the rest of his life to public service astronomy
and hitchhiked to San Francisco. Then as now, John had many friends, and they helped to keep him fed, clothed, and sheltered.
He retrieved some of his telescopes from Sacramento and set them up at the corner of Broderick and Jackson streets in San
Francisco every clear night. Thousands of people looked through the telescopes while John talked to them in detail about what
they were seeing. (This practice is still an integral part of Sidewalk Astronomy: astronomical information must be supplied
by the telescope operator so the viewers can understand what they see.) Eventually, John was able to support himself by teaching
classes in telescope-making and astronomy at the Jewish Community Center and at the California Academy of Sciences.
In 1968, some of the kids who had made telescopes under John's guidance, and who joined him
in setting up scopes at Jackson and Broderick, started a public-service organization named the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.
As the organization grew, larger telescopes were made and taken out to the streets. By 1970, the Sidewalk Astronomers had
a 24-inch telescope which was freeway portable. The possibility of showing deep sky objects to large numbers of people through
very large telescopes led the growing band of Sidewalk Astronomers to National Parks and Monuments, Native American reservations,
and out of the country to places where "dark skies and the public collide."
1978, Swami Swahananda, formerly of the San Francisco and Berkeley Vedanta centers and recently transferred to Hollywood,
invited John to give a series of lectures at the Vedanta Society of Southern California. The lectures were a great success
so he bagan teaching telescope making and for 26 years, he continued to teach in Hollywood, spending at least two months
there each year. The Brothers at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood have always supported John and his vision.
While John was no longer a monk, his beliefs and his former task of reconciling Vedanta and
science had a great influence on him and his interpretation of the cosmos. He has written two booklets, Advaita Vedanta and
Modern Science and Astronomy for Children Under 80 which explain his thoughts and prove him to be as much a philosopher as
he is a popularizer of astronomy.
Because of his influence, millions of people
all over the world have looked through the telescopes of the Sidewalk Astronomers (the San Francisco was dropped when chapters
started forming worldwide). John has helped to simplify the art of mirror making enabling thousands of children and adults
with no previous experience or special training in optics to experience the joy of turning slabs of glass into powerful eyes
into the heavens with their own hands. The "Dobsonian" mount has made large, "user friendly" telescopes
affordable and accessible to the general public. Thousands of people have made their own sturdy, low-cost telescopes under
John's direction or on their own by using his simple design.
Telescopes with light-weight
mirrors previously considered unusable, long focal ratios previously considered unmanageable, and apertures previously considered
unthinkable are now in the hands of lovers of astronomy around the globe. With so many home-made Dobsonians showing up everywhere,
commercial telescope makers joined the trend and now most offer relatively inexpensive Dobsonians. Because of the popularity
of home-made and commercial Dobsonians, it is impossible to measure the impact John has made on amateur astronomy and because
of the changing role of amateur astronomy in discovering comets and other celestial objects, it is equally impossible to measure
the true contribution his inspiration has made to our knowledge of our Universe.
Ferris, in his book, Seeing in the Dark, states, "the amateur astronomy revolution was incited by three technological
innovations - the Dobsonian telescope, CCD light-sensing devices, and the Interent." When asked about the "Dobsonian
Revolution", John usually replies that all previous revolutions were fought with cannons on Dobsonian mounts.
In 2004, Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science was retitled, BEYOND SPACE & TIME - Is there
an uncaused cause behind the Deep Field? and is now available. Another new title THE MOON IS NEW, a novel, is also in the
publishing process and should be out early in 2005.
John has recently been shown
in two documentary films. In the first, "UNIVERSE - The Cosmology Quest", John appears along with Sir Fred Hoyle,
Dr. Halton C. Arp, Dr. Margaret Burbidge, Dr. Geoffrey Burbidge, Dr. Jayant Narlikar and a host of other astronomers, cosmologist,
and philosophers questioning the currently popular Big Bang Cosmology. The second film, released in the summer of 2005,
A Sidewalk Astronomer is a profile on John in tribute to his contribution to amateur astronomy. Completely unscripted, it
provides a unique insight into a likewise unique individual.
Until 2008, John spent
most of his time traveling and spreading the art of telescope making and sharing his views on cosmology to amateur astronomy
clubs around the world, as thier guest. He spent a short two months of the year at his home in San Francisco and another two
months in Hollywood, the rest of the time he was teaching in Oregon, Connecticut, Chile or even Siberia.
While John was no longer a monk, he still lived very simply, spending most of his time in the homes of amateur astronomers.
In the spring of 2008, John suffered some health
issues that have considerably limited his ability to travel as he had in the past and at this time he permanently resides
at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood. He has not become a monk again, but has been accepted into the community where he
is surrounded by the caring brothers and members of the society. With their continuing support, he still does sidewalk
observing and gives talks to the Vedantans and amateur astronomers on a limited basis.
John Dobson's life has been a tremendous inspiration to a great many people. The Sidewalk
Astronomers continue to serve the public with large telescopes, providing free "star parties" and slide shows under
dark skies and city lights, encouraging the citizens of this planet to think and wonder about the Universe and give them a
chance to see its beauty with their own eyes.
To members of the Sidewalk Astronomers,
John continues to provide guidance and inspiration. His unending desire to always keep learning and discovering things for
himself has affected all of those around him. One of his favorite sayings is "If you figure something out for yourself,
it doesn't make no never-mind who figured it out first, its yours." His life of enthusiastic, selfless public service
and his genuine love and concern for this planet and those that live on it are the foundation and guiding principle of our