John Dobson, 1915–2014

The former monk who looked to the stars

Cloistered away in a Hindu monastery in Berkeley, Calif., monk John Dobson cobbled together a crude reflective telescope using a discarded porthole window from a marine salvage yard. When he looked through it at the night sky, he got his first intimate view of the moon. “Everybody’s got to see this,” he said.

From that point on, Dobson was the Johnny Appleseed of amateur astronomy, said The Washington Post. He set up telescopes on the sidewalks of San Francisco and reeled in passersby like a carnival barker. He lectured across the country, and wrote the book How and Why to Make a User-Friendly Sidewalk Telescope. Most importantly, his simple design—featuring recycled glass, cardboard tubes, and an innovative mount made of plywood—allowed amateur astronomers to inexpensively create fairly sophisticated and large telescopes. Thomas Bopp used a Dobsonian telescope in 1995 to discover what was later named the Hale-Bopp Comet.

Born in Beijing to a zoology professor and a musician, Dobson earned a chemistry degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and worked briefly for the defense industry before his interest in Eastern religions led him to take vows as a Hindu monk. He was in a monastery for 12 years before his curiosity about the universe compelled him to build his first telescope. There, he furtively built increasingly bigger and more elaborate telescopes until 1967, when his swami expelled him because he considered Dobson’s activities un-monk-like, said the Los Angeles Times. Dobson hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he threw himself into proselytizing for sidewalk astronomy full-time. When friends urged him to patent his Dobsonian mount, he refused. “He said, ‘These are gifts to humanity,’” said longtime friend Bob Alborzian. “His goal was to open astronomy to the common man.”

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Dobson used accessible language to make astronomy clear to nonscientists and opened up the night sky to “uncounted thousands” around the world, said He also had his share of critics, largely because of his outspoken attacks on the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which contradicted his belief that life and the universe are eternal. Hindu teachings, he said, had long predicted “that science and religion would meet and shake hands. I think that time has come.”

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