At the January 16, 2014 talk at Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics, host David Aguilar reminded the audience of how the public tends to revere such celebrities as Oprah, Lady Gaga and the like, and how their main feature, in addition to fame and millions, is the size of their houses, often bigger than most museums and government buildings. Also, upon their death, an obituary can be found in virtually every major newspaper and magazine.
But, on January 15, 2014, a person died, at age 98, that most of that night’s audience had heard of, but had no knowledge of his passing, as it hadn’t been written in any popular venue: John Dobson, amateur astronomer and popularizer of a form of telescope mount that has allowed many who might have wanted a traditional instrument, but wouldn’t have been able to afford one, to either make their own, or inexpensively purchase what might often have been their first telescope.
Born in Beijing, China, in 1915, John and his family came to San Francisco in 1927, where his father accepted a teaching position in a local high school. John studied Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early ‘40s, but in 1944 he heard a lecture by a Vedantan swami which changed him from a self-proclaimed atheist to a passionate lover of the universe and its creation. Soon after that, Dobson joined the Vedanta Society monastery, and became a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. While there, his main focus was reconciling astronomy with the religious teachings of Vedanta. To assist him in his work, Dobson became interested in building telescopes, to allow him to better understand the universe and to inspire a love of astronomy in others. Unfortunately for Dobson, this overconcentration in astronomy, along with a disagreement as to a paper wrongly credited to him that allegedly contradicted his science/religious studies, led to his leaving the monastery after over 20 years.
Dobson then began what was to become his life’s work: Bringing astronomy to the public. By finding a large pile of surplus port holes, and grinding them to the proper parabolic curvatures needed, and picking up leftover wood from construction sites to create an easy-to-use mount that allowed his homemade telescopes to freely move around 360 degrees (in azimuth) like a Lazy Susan, and up and down (in altitude), from the horizontal to 90 degrees, his telescopes were incredibly easy to set up and to use. Although this configuration didn’t have his telescopes move equatorially (with the apparent motion of the sky – the telescope operator had to act as “clock drive”), it allowed amateur astronomers the ability to own larger telescopes than they previously had, as there was no extra cost for the motorized mount– a benefit to many new sky lovers.
He also spent many nights on the street corners of San Francisco, allowing the public to take advantage of views of the night sky through his homemade instruments, thereby co-founding the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. But, it was when the Riverside Telescope Makers invited him to one of their meetings that his fame grew.
Since then, Dobson’s design has exploded, to the point where there are now professional telescopes also utilizing his design. Included are some of the newer, extreme-sized instruments in use and in planning in Chile. Surprising to us in this modern world, John Dobson never patented his design, and therefore never made a penny for what essentially transformed the world of amateur (and professional) astronomy. Everything he did for the subject of astronomy was for the love of the cosmos and the enjoyment of the public.
Many of us in Rhode Island were privileged to have met John Dobson in 1989, when he visited both Ladd and Seagrave observatories. Although many members of his audience wanted to speak of his mount and how it transformed their observing, he was more focused on speaking of his concepts of cosmology – which did, surprisingly differ from the norm at that time. Regardless, being with a man of such importance to the astronomical community made for a memorable night.
John Dobson died peacefully Wednesday, January 15th, in Burbank, California, at age 98; but, his life will continue with every Dobsonian ever used, now and in the future.
John Dobson entertains conventioneers at Stellafane. Photo by Dan Lorraine.