John Dobson (amateur astronomer)

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John Dobson
John Dobson in 2002.
John Lowry Dobson

(1915-09-14)September 14, 1915
DiedJanuary 15, 2014(2014-01-15) (aged 98)
OccupationVedantan monk (1944−1967), lecturer/popularizer of amateur astronomy[1]
Known forDobsonian telescope, sidewalk astronomy

John Lowry Dobson (September 14, 1915 – January 15, 2014) was an amateur astronomer and is best known for the Dobsonian telescope, a portable, low-cost Newtonian reflector telescope.[2] He was also known for his efforts to promote awareness of astronomy (and his unorthodox views of physical cosmology) through public lectures including his performances of "sidewalk astronomy." Dobson was also the co-founder of the amateur astronomical group, the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.


Dobson was born in Beijing, China. His maternal grandfather was the missionary Hiram Harrison Lowry, his mother was a musician, and his father taught zoology at a 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.

Time at the monastery[edit]

As a teen, 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 you’ 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.”[3]

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.”[3] 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.”[3]

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.[4]

Eventually 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.[5][citation needed]

Amateur astronomy[edit]

Having left the order in 1967, Dobson in 1968 co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers,[6] an amateur astronomy organization that aims to popularize astronomy among people on the street, along with Bruce Sams and Jeffery Roloff. Sams had built a large telescope but because at the time he was only 12, he was not eligible for membership in the only local club – the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers – thus the “San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers” was begun. 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 continued to spend two months there each year teaching telescope and cosmology classes. He spent two more months at his home in San Francisco, and spent most of the rest of each year traveling as an invited guest for astronomical societies, where he spoke about telescope building, sidewalk astronomy, and his views of cosmology and the scientific establishment.

Amateur cosmology[edit]

Dobson claimed the Big Bang model did not hold up to scrutiny,[7][8] and instead advocated a non-standard cosmology; a “recycling” Steady State model of the universe, where matter in the universe is forever expanding outward, but matter also “recycles” over time via quantum tunneling. In an essay entitled, “Origins”, Dobson also argued that such a universe could allow for life to be ubiquitous and ever-present.[9]


In 2004, the Crater Lake Institute presented 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”.[10]

In 2005, the Smithsonian magazine listed Dobson as among 35 individuals who have made a major difference during the lifetime of that periodical.[11]


Dobson died while in Providence / Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California on January 15, 2014. He was 98.[12][13]

Promotion of astronomy[edit]

The Dobsonian telescope[edit]

Two amateur-built Dobsonian style telescopes on display at Stellafane in the early 1980s

Dobson was most notable for being the originator and promoter of a design for a large, portable, low-cost reflecting telescope, the "Dobsonian telescope".[2] 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, very stable, and easy to manufacture. The design revolutionized[14][15][16] the sheer size of telescopes available to amateur astronomers with the optical diameters unheard of before their appearance.[17]

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 was 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.[18] With its simplicity of construction and use, the Dobsonian has become a very popular design today, particularly for large amateur telescopes.[19] The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington D.C., uses a Dobsonian telescope in the museum's public observatory alongside other solar telescopes.[20]

Sidewalk astronomers[edit]

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. The telescope which Dobson used most frequently on the streets of San Francisco, was a classic 9-inch aperture Dobsonian, with a typical porthole glass mirror of outstanding optical quality, made by one of his own students in a mirror making class. This telescope was portable enough that it could be taken by Dobson from his residence to many busy street corners in San Francisco, using the city's Muni public transportation. Appropriately nicknamed "Tumbleweed", since it traveled randomly about to numerous public observing locations, this 9-inch telescope is now shared among many astronomy clubs and organizations around the world, allowing people everywhere to observe the heavens with such an iconic instrument, just as Dobson would have wished.

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.

Publications by John Dobson[edit]

Dobson's first book was published with a unique plywood binding.

Dobson authored the 1991 book How and Why to Make a User-Friendly Sidewalk Telescope (ISBN 978-0913399651) 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. Dobson has also published Beyond Space and Time (2004) (ISBN 978-0972805193) and The Moon is New (2008) (ISBN 978-0981695204).

John Dobson in the media[edit]

Dobson's life and ideas are the subject of the 2005 documentary A Sidewalk Astronomer. He was also featured in the PBS series The Astronomers, and appeared twice on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Dobson also appears as one of the speakers in Universe: The Cosmology Quest, a documentary about non-standard cosmological theories.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "John Dobson - A Brief Biography". The Sidewalk Astronomers. Retrieved 2014-01-26.
  2. ^ a b SB & F: Volume 43, Issues 5-6, page 231, American Association for the Advancement of Science 2007
  3. ^ a b c John Dobson: Amateur Astronomy's Revolutionary Archived April 9, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Pendergrast, Mark (28 April 2009). Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection. Basic Books. p. 342 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ "John Dobson - A Brief Biography". Retrieved November 9, 2012.
  6. ^ "The Sidewalk". San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.
  7. ^ Jacobs, Jeffrey Fox (2005). A Sidewalk Astronomer (documentary film). Jacobs Entertainment Inc.
  8. ^ Dobson, John. "Equations of Maya".
  9. ^ Dobson, John. "Origins".
  10. ^ Jullierat, Lee (July 15, 2004). "Pied Piper of Astronomy to present program: John Dobson to be honored by Crater Lake Institute for public service". Herald and News. Archived from the original on February 22, 2015. Retrieved 2014-01-26.
  11. ^ Moser, Don (November 2005). "John Dobson". Smithsonian. 35 Who made a difference.
  12. ^ "Sidewalk Astronomers Website". The Sidewalk Astronomers. Retrieved 2014-01-26.
  13. ^ Woo, Elaine (2014-01-18). "John Dobson dies at 98; former monk developed easy-to-make telescope". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2014-01-26.
  14. ^ Jack Hitt, Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, Crown/Archetype - 2012, pages 231-234
  15. ^ Antony Cooke, Visual Astronomy Under Dark Skies: A New Approach to Observing Deep Space, Springer Science & Business Media - 2006, page 156
  16. ^ Neil English, Classic Telescopes: A Guide to Collecting, Restoring, and Using Telescopes of Yesteryear, Springer Science & Business Media - 2012, page 127
  17. ^ James Mullaney, A Buyer's and User's Guide to Astronomical Telescopes and Binocular, page 38
  18. ^ "Innovator Profile: John Dobson, Reprint of NY Times story". Cognitive Labs. 2006-09-18. Retrieved 2014-01-26.
  19. ^ Mullaney, James (2007). A Buyer's And User's Guide to Astronomical Telescopes & Binoculars. Springer. p. 38.
  20. ^ "Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory". Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  21. ^ The Universe: Cosmology Quest at IMDb

External links[edit]