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Sidewalk Astronomy Evangelist, John Dobson, Dies at Age 98

 "The importance of a telescope is not on how big it is, it's not on how well made it is - it's how many people, less fortunate than you, got to look through it."
John Dobson, 1915–2014

The amateur astronomy community lost one of the most energetic and dedicated astronomy popularizers of the last 100 years Wednesday morning, January 15th. Most famous for his development and promotion of the telescope design that bears his name, the Dobsonian telescope, John Dobson's single-minded goal in life was to show as many people as possible, the wonders of the universe through a telescope.

Dobson had a very interesting life story. He was born in Beijing, China in 1915. His mother was a musician and his father taught zoology. The family moved to San Francisco in 1927 to avoid social and political unrest brewing in China. John's father became a teacher at Lowell High School, where he remained until retiring in the 1950's.

After completing a degree in Chemistry in 1943, John Dobson worked in a number of defense-related jobs. After attending a service at the Vedanta Center in San Francisco, his life changed forever. He joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco in 1944, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order, known for its intellectual rigor and public service. Coincidentally, he was given the assignment of reconciling the teachings of religion with those of science.

Dobson wanted to know what made the universe tick, but he believed this could never be done unless he could see the universe with his own eyes. Finally, in the early 1950's he decided to make a telescope to see the universe for himself.
 
His first telescope was nothing like the behemoth reflectors we conjure images of in our minds when we read or hear the word "Dobsonian". It was a tiny 2-inch refractor made from an achromatic lens and an eyepiece from an old pair of binoculars. Like most amateur astronomers he soon wanted a much bigger instrument to get a better view of further and fainter objects.
 
Guided by Allyn Thompson's book, Making Your Own Telescope, Dobson ground his first 12-inch mirror, and made his first simple telescope. He was so blown away by his first view of the last quarter Moon through this telescope he formed a principle that would guide him for the next four decades: If you own a telescope, it is your duty to share it with people who don't.
 
Dobson began sneaking out of the monastery on clear nights with his telescope to roam the streets showing people the wonders of the night sky with is home made telescope. He would lend his telescope for a month to young people who showed an interest, and eventually began teaching some of them how to make their own telescopes. After 23 years, more than a dozen telescopes, and too many nights away from the monastery, John was asked to leave the Ramakrishna Order.
 

Free to do as he pleased, John decided to dedicate the rest of his life to public service astronomy and hitchhiked to San Francisco. John had many friends who were happy to feed and clothe him and provide a spare bed or couch to sleep on. He began setting up his telescopes at the corner of Broderick and Jackson streets in San Francisco every clear night. Thousands of people looked through the telescopes while John talked to them in detail about what they were seeing.

In 1968, Dobson and two other amateur astronomers formed The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, an astronomy club that would do no research and hold no formal meetings -- its sole purpose was to share the sky with the public. This later became the Sidewalk Astronomers as chapters began to spring up worldwide.

For the next three decades John spent most of his time traveling and spreading the art of telescope making and sharing his views on cosmology to amateur astronomy clubs around the world, as their guest. He spent two months of the year at his home in San Francisco and another two months in Hollywood, the rest of the time he spent teaching around the country and around the world.

Because of his influence, millions of people all over the world have looked through the telescopes of the Sidewalk Astronomers. In the book, Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris wrote, "the amateur astronomy revolution was incited by three technological innovations - the Dobsonian telescope, CCD light-sensing devices, and the Internet."

 As it says in his biography on the Sidewalk Astronomers website, "John Dobson's life has been a tremendous inspiration to a great many people. The Sidewalk Astronomers continue to serve the public with large telescopes, providing free "star parties" and slide shows under dark skies and city lights, encouraging the citizens of this planet to think and wonder about the Universe and give them a chance to see its beauty with their own eyes."

 This year's International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, planned for March 8th, will be dedicated to Dobson's memory.

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