John Dobson (amateur astronomer)
|John L. Dobson|
John Dobson in 2002.
September 14, 1915 |
|Occupation||Vedantan monk (1944−1967), lecturer/popularizer of amateur astronomy|
|Known for||Dobsonian telescope, sidewalk astronomy|
- This article is about John L. Dobson, the amateur astronomer. For other men with a similar name, see John Dobson.
John Lowry Dobson (born September 14, 1915) is a popularizer of amateur astronomy. He is most notable for being the promoter of a design for a large, portable, low-cost Newtonian reflector telescope that bears his name, the Dobsonian telescope. The design is considered revolutionary since it allowed amateur astronomers to build fairly large telescopes. He is less known for his efforts to promote awareness of astronomy (and his unorthodox views of cosmology) through public lectures including his performances of "sidewalk astronomy." John Dobson is also the co-founder of the amateur astronomical group, the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.
John Dobson was born in Beijing, China. His maternal grandfather founded Peking University, his mother was a musician, and his father taught zoology at the University. He and his parents moved to San Francisco, California in 1927. His father accepted a teaching position at Lowell High School and taught there until the 1950s. Dobson spent 23 years in a monastery, after which he became more active in promoting astronomy and his own nonstandard cosmology theories.
Time at the monastery
As a teen John Dobson became a “belligerent” atheist. He said: “I could see that these two notions cannot arise in the same being: ‘do unto others as you would that they do unto’ and ‘if you're not a good boy, it's into hell for keeps.’… They must be spoofing us. So I became an atheist, a belligerent atheist. If anybody started a conversation about the subject, I was a belligerent atheist.”
Over time Dobson became interested in the universe and its workings. He earned a masters degree in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley in 1943, working in E. O. Lawrence's lab. In 1944 he attended a lecture by a Vedantan swami. Dobson said the swami “revealed to him a world he had never seen.” That same year Dobson joined the Vedanta Society monastery in San Francisco, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. “One of John's responsibilities at the monastery was to reconcile astronomy with the teachings of Vedanta. That job led him to build telescopes on the side. He took to wheeling them around outside the monastery, fascinating the neighbors who would congregate around him.”
Dobson’s interest in telescope building was in part to better understand the universe, and in part to inspire in others a curiosity about the cosmos. To this end, he often offered assistance and corresponded about his work with those outside the monastery. Telescope building was not part of the curriculum at the monastery, however, and much of his correspondence was written in code so as to attract less attention. For instance, a telescope was referred to as a "geranium", which is a type of flower. A "potted geranium" referred to a telescope in a tube and rocker, while a "geranium in bloom" referred to a telescope whose mirror was now aluminized.
Eventually John Dobson was given the option of ceasing his telescope building or leaving the order. He chose to stop building telescopes so that he could remain at the monastery. But one day another monk wrongly accused him as missing and reported him to the head swami. Dobson was expelled in 1967. However, he maintains that the accusation was not the true reason for his expulsion. The true reason, he contends, was a result of a misunderstanding. The head swami read a paper that was presumably written by Dobson that contradicted the reconciliation of science with Vedanta, and the swami thought Dobson had rejected the swami's teachings.
Having left the order in 1967, Dobson co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, an amateur astronomy organization that aims to popularize astronomy among people on the street, along with Bruce Sams and Jeffery Roloff. Bruce had built a large telescope but because he was only 12 at the time he was not eligible for membership in the only local club, the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers, thus the "San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers" was born. It was also at this time that Dobson's simple form of telescope, which came to be known as the Dobsonian, became well known after he started teaching classes to the public on how to make your own telescope.
He was later asked to speak at the Vedanta Society of Southern California in Hollywood, and has continued to spend two months there each year teaching telescope and cosmology classes. He spends two more months at his home in San Francisco, and spends most of the rest of each year travelling as an invited guest for astronomical societies, where he speaks about telescope building, sidewalk astronomy, and his views of cosmology and the scientific establishment.
In 2004, the Crater Lake Institute presented John Dobson with its Annual Award for Excellence in Public Service for pioneering sidewalk astronomy in the national parks and forests, "where curious minds and dark skies collide." In 2005, the Smithsonian magazine listed John Dobson as among 35 individuals who have made a major difference during the lifetime of that periodical.
Promotion of astronomy
The Dobsonian telescope
John Dobson is most notable for being the originator and promoter of a design for a large, portable, low-cost reflecting telescope, the "Dobsonian telescope". The design is a very simple, low cost alt-azimuth mounted Newtonian telescope that employs common materials such as plywood, formica, PVC closet flanges, cardboard construction tubes, recycled porthole glass, and indoor-outdoor carpet. This type of simplified altazimuth mount is also commonly referred to in amateur astronomical circles as a "Dobsonian mount". Using this construction method makes the typical Dobsonian telescope large, portable, inexpensive, and easy to manufacture.
The design is named after Dobson because he is credited for being the first person to have combined all these construction techniques in a single telescope design. He is reluctant to take credit, however, pointing out that he built it that way because it was all he needed. In his own words, he jokes that he was "too retarded" to build a more sophisticated telescope with an equatorial telescope mount. With its simplicity of construction and use, the Dobsonian has become a very popular design today, particularly for large amateur telescopes.
John Dobson co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in coordination with two other people, having cheaply constructed several telescopes that were easy to use, including a 24-inch (610 mm) telescope that was built for approximately US$300. Rather than have regular meetings, the organization simply set up telescopes on the sidewalk during clear evenings, offering to show and explain the night sky to people passing by.
Unexpectedly, the Sidewalk Astronomers were invited to the Riverside Telescope Makers' meeting in 1969. The 24-inch (610 mm) Dobsonian telescope brought by the Sidewalk Astronomers was unconventional, because most telescopes at such meetings tended to be smaller, on equatorial mounts, and designed for astrophotography rather than optical viewing. Surprisingly and controversially at the time, Dobson's telescope tied in first prize for best optics. It was also awarded the runner up prize for mechanics, despite the mechanics of the telescope and its mount being relatively simple.
Sidewalk Astronomers has since become a prominent organization, recognized for its taking of astronomy to the public via "sidewalk astronomy". The current organization has members throughout the world, and continues to promote public service astronomy by putting telescopes on street corners in urban areas. Members of the organization also visit national parks giving slide show presentations, providing telescope viewing, and explaining the universe.
Dobson often uses his speaking opportunities during sidewalk and other observing sessions, at astronomical societies, and in the media, to promote his own non-standard cosmology theories, claiming the Big Bang model does not hold up to scrutiny. Dobson labels the Big Bang model as "fudge without walnuts". In “The Equations of Maya”, Dobson writes: “The Big Bang cosmologists want to get the Universe out of nothing. It’s like asking us to believe that nothing made everything out of nothing. But that’s not what shows in our physics.” He suggests that this model has become quite “tortured”, likening it to the Ptolemaic system. He cites the inconsistency of dark matter that cannot be explained without resorting to what he considers increasingly complicated, unlikely, and unsupported theories. In essence, Dobson claims that physicists have been inventing new physics to match the Big Bang model, recently with a "mystery" called dark energy. He is also a critic of an educational system which, he asserts, indoctrinates young scientists in the Big Bang model “without presenting any of the problems” with it. He challenges people to broaden their thinking and to think more critically.
Dobson advocates a “Recycling” Steady State model of the universe. His model draws on Einstein's assertion in special relativity that energy is interchangeable with matter, and on Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Pauli exclusion principle (aka "Pauli's Verbot"). He says that cosmologists have, in general, overlooked what is going on at the edge of the universe. Dobson claims that at the edge, we know a great deal about a particle’s momentum, so “by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, if our uncertainty in the momentum approaches zero, our uncertainty in where the particles are must approach infinity. The hydrogen simply ‘tunnels’ back in.”  Dobson contends that although matter in the universe is forever expanding outward, matter “recycles” over time in a way comparable with quantum tunneling. Entropy therefore remains constant, because atoms rebuild their order as they recycle.
In “Origins” Dobson addresses the creation of life: “For a Big Bang cosmology, in which the early Universe was extremely hot, a discussion of the origin of life is of course appropriate, since life could not have been with us from the beginning. But for a Steady State model, in which the Universe is without beginning, perhaps life itself could be without beginning.” Dobson also points out the Pasteur-Darwin paradox: “Pasteur thought that he had shown that life does not arise from non-living matter but only from previous life. Darwin seems to have taken the other view, namely, that it might have arisen from ‘some warm pool’.”
Publications by John Dobson
Dobson authored the 1991 book How and Why to Make a User-Friendly Sidewalk Telescope (ISBN 0-913399-64-7) with editor Norman Sperling. This book helped popularize what came to be known as the Dobsonian mount, and treats the "why" as importantly as the "how". It covers Dobson's background and his philosophy on astronomy and the universe, and his belief in the importance of popular access to astronomy for proper appreciation of the universe. John Dobson is now in the process of publishing Beyond Space and Time (2004) and The Moon is New (2008).
John Dobson in the media
Dobson is one of the speakers in Universe: The Cosmology Quest, a documentary supporting non-standard cosmological points of view. His life and theories are also the subject of the 2005 documentary A Sidewalk Astronomer. He was also featured in the PBS series The Astronomers, and has appeared twice on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
- sidewalkastronomers.us - John Dobson - A Brief Biography
- SB & F: Volume 43, Issues 5-6, page 231, American Association for the Advancement of Science 2007
- Tammy Plotner, Dobsonian Telescope, universetoday.com
- John Dobson: Amateur Astronomy's Revolutionary
- “Mirror Mirror” By Mark Pendergrast
- "John Dobson - A Brief Biography". Retrieved November 9, 2012.
- Pied piper of astronomy to present program
- “35 Who Made a Difference: John Dobson,” by Don Moser, Smithsonian (November 2005)
- 9.18.2006 Innovator Profile: John Dobson, Reprint of NY Times story
- James Mullaney, A Buyer's And User's Guide to Astronomical Telescopes & Binoculars, Springer, 2007, page 38
- Jeffrey Fox Jacobs, "A Sidewalk Astronomer", documentary film, Copyright 2005, Jacobs Entertainment Inc
- “Equations of Maya” by John Dobson
- “Origins” by John Dobson
- "Universe–The Cosmology Quest"
- Sidewalk Astronomers – This website includes John Dobson's official schedule.
- The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers
- John Dobson of The Sidewalk Astronomers – Papers and articles written by John Dobson
- Dobson Space Telescope
- A Sidewalk Astronomer A film about Astronomy, Cosmology and John Dobson
- “The Moon is New” John Dobson's recently published book
- “35 Who Made a Difference: John Dobson” by Don Moser, Smithsonian (November 2005)
- “John Lowery Dobson Oral History Interview” Crater Lake Institute, 2004
- John Dobson honored by Crater Lake Institute for public service