Tuesday, January 21, 2014

John Lowry Dobson (1915-2014)

John Lowry Dobson (September 14, 1915 – January 15, 2014) was an amateur astronomer and best known for the Dobsonian telescope, a portable, low-cost altazimuth/Newtonian reflector telescope. The Dobsonian design is considered revolutionary since it allowed amateur astronomers to build fairly large telescopes. Dobson was 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." 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 founded Peking University, originally known then as Imperial University of Peking, in 1898. Dobson’s  mother was a musician and his father taught zoology at the University. In 1927, Dobson and his parents moved to San Francisco, California. His father accepted a teaching position at Lowell High School and taught there until the 1950s. Dobson spent 23 years in a Vedanta Society monastery, after which he became more active in promoting astronomy.

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, Dobson 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, Dobson 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 Dobson’s 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, 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 maintained that the accusation was not the true reason for his expulsion. The true reason, Dobson contended, 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.

After leaving the order in 1967, Dobson, along with Bruce Sams and Jeffery Roloff,  founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, an amateur astronomy organization dedicated to popularizing astronomy among people on the street. Sams had built a large telescope but, because he was only 12 at the time, Sams was not eligible for membership in the only local club, the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers. And so, 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.

Dobson 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. Dobson 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. Dobson claimed the Big Bang model did not hold up to scrutiny, 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.

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.

Dobson, with editor Norman Sperling, authored the 1991 book How and Why to Make a User-Friendly Sidewalk Telescope. 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).

Dobson's life and ideas were 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.

On January 15, 2014, John Dobson died peacefully at a hospital in Burbank, California. He was 98.


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