Sidewalk astronomerJohn Dobson

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Born in China — his grandfather founded Peking University — the family fled political unrest in that country and settled in San Francisco, where Dobson couldn’t reconcile his personal philosophy. “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,” he said years later. “So I became an atheist — a belligerent atheist.” But after earning his Master’s degree in chemistry, he became a monk — following Ramakrishna, a Vedantan Indian who had also studied Islam and Christianity and declared that all religions led to the same God.

With his science background, the Order asked Dobson to reconcile its teachings with the advances in astronomy. To help with this task, he needed a telescope, which were too expensive for a monk to afford — so he designed his own. He called the result the “sidewalk telescope,” because he would set them up on sidewalks so that passersby could look through them and see the stars, nebulae, and other objects in the sky. Everyone else calls the design the Dobsonian Telescope, and it revolutionized astronomy, bringing tens of thousands of amateurs to the hobby. “He really wanted to just share viewing the sky with people,” says astronomer Anthony Cook of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. “He created a hobby and a type of telescope that ensured that people could build their own and look farther across the universe than was possible for most people before his time.”

The less costly design of Dobson’s telescope made it all possible. He started with a classic Newtonian design, and figured out where he could save money: the mirror, the tube, and the mount. He used a lighter mirror, which needed less expensive mounting hardware. His tube was plywood, or even cardboard. And the mount? “for hundreds of years, wars were fought using cannon on ‘Dobsonian’ mounts,” he once said. Manufacturers quickly adopted the design. A friend said he should patent his creation, but Dobson refused. “These are gifts to humanity,” he retorted, and even today the Dobsonian design is still “one of the most popular telescopes on the market,” according to Dennis di Cicco of Sky & Telescope magazine. But Dobson was thrown out of the monastery: ironically, they thought he spent too much time looking through his telescope, and helping others to build them. With his time freed up, he spent even more of his efforts into promoting astronomy, and explaining the cosmos to anyone and in any place — “where dark skies and the public collide,” he would say. He founded the Sidewalk Astronomers, which now has chapters around the world with around 10,000 members. A documentary of Dobson’s life, A Sidewalk Astronomer, was released in 2005. He had been in poor health after suffering a stroke several years ago, and died in Burbank, Calif., on January 15. He was 98.

From This is True for 19 January 2014