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The Monk Of A Million Telescopes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Andromeda (Adam Evans)

“IF THERE WERE A MILLION PEOPLE WITH TELESCOPES WILLING TO LET A FEW THOUSAND OTHER PEOPLE LOOK THROUGH THEM, IT IS POSSIBLE THAT EVERYONE WHO WALKS THIS EARTH, WITH EYES TO SEE, MIGHT SEE THE UNIVERSE”

John Dobson, (September 14th, 1915 – January 15th, 2014)

John Dobson in 2002 (AlanJWylie at en.wikipedia)

John Dobson’s life reads like a movie script. He was born in Beijing to a musician father and a zoologist mother, who then left China for San Francisco in 1927. He studied chemistry at Berkeley, and in 1944 his interest in Eastern religions led him to join the Vedanta Society monastery, where he would stay for 23 years.

Given the task of reconciling what was taught at the monastery with science he eventually started building telescopes out of whatever material he could lay his hands on. What he saw through these simple instruments profoundly changed his outlook, imbuing him with a lifelong urge to share the universe with the rest of humanity.

By 1967 his fascination for astronomy contributed to his being kicked out of the order, and a year later he formed a group known as the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. He and his cohorts traveled the US, and eventually the world, setting up telescopes wherever there were people passing by who might be persuaded to take a look. They were passionate advocates for the shared experience of observing the night sky, of connecting to the cosmos.

He also found a way to make this possible for the most amateur of sky-gazers. Telescopes come in all manner of designs, but Dobson’s genius was to innovate one of the simplest; finding a straightforward way to make big, easy-to-use, and cheap devices. Now known as Dobsonians, these telescopes basically consist of a thin (and therefore less expensive) parabolic mirror on a simple mount known as an alt-azimuth (it rotates left-right and it points from horizon to zenith). The eyepiece is up at the aperture, where a simple secondary mirror reflects the light gathered by the big primary off to the side.

Dobson eschewed fancy materials, demonstrating that you could build an excellent device with nothing more than plywood and cardboard tubing. The whole point was to make as big and as portable a ‘light-bucket’ as you could, not to make precise astronomical measurements, but to best enjoy the wonders of the night sky.

It works beautifully. So much so that today, commercially produced Dobsonian telescopes made with far fancier ingredients are among the top choices for people buying their first instrument. But they’re also a prime choice for amateurs constructing their own, with some mammoth and inventive devices out there.

Dobson’s dream is embodied in the quote above, and it’s probably not far from having been realized. Throughout his unusual life he was an inspiration to many, and proof that the universe is easily within reach, if we only choose to look up.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. birdsdlab@att.net 11:50 am 01/22/2014

    whats going on with the site the links do not work on all things and the pages that do come up are messed up

    Link to this

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