Wednesday, May 04, 1994

John Dobson: A Personal Reminiscence

by Joel Marks
Published as "Astronomer Spreads Pearls of Wisdom," New Haven Register, May 4, 1994.
It is not what one expects in middle‑age: To meet a godlike man. Yet there he was, in our living room, this small, white‑haired, almost‑octogenarian, physically beautiful man, holding forth on the cosmos. John Dobson had come to visit. 
You may have heard of him: He was featured a number of years ago in the first episode of the PBS television series, The Astronomers. He's even been on Johnny Carson. Among amateur astronomers he is known for two major contributions. He beat swords into plowshares by adapting an old cannon mount for use as a telescope mount. The mount, as well as telescopes that use it, have come to be known as "Dobsonians," although Dobson claims he has invented nothing. Dobsonians are noted for their ease of construction and ease of use; thus they have proliferated. 
In concert with this technological innovation, Dobson had a moral idea: Let us amateur astronomers bring our telescopes to the people! And so began the Sidewalk Astronomers. Simply by setting up a telescope on a street in San Francisco, and inviting anyone to peer through it, Dobson sparked a revolution that has since spread round the globe. Dobson's goal is to have a million telescopes in the hands of amateurs, each of whom will let several thousand laypersons use one to see the Moon or a planet. In this way, every person on Earth will be given the opportunity to view a neighboring world first‑hand, their first step on an infinite journey. 
Dobson himself continues to bring the universe to wherever people congregate. He spends nine months of the year away from his San Francisco home (where he rents a room), speaking to astronomy clubs, college classes, and school children, and teaching courses in telescope‑building. When funding permits, he also travels by van into the national parks, carrying large Dobsonians to lucky campers at "dark sites." On the other trips he will stay with whoever will put him up. That is how he ended up in our home for a few days. My wife, who was vice president of the Astronomical Society of New Haven at the time, invited him to speak to the Society during one of his visits to the Northeast and to accept our hospitality. 
My first response was to look forward to having an interesting houseguest. But as I took the opportunity to spend many hours with him, I came to feel we had been blessed by a visitation. It was a combination of little things; for instance, Dobson is socially attentive in a way I do not often experience. He is also a master teacher, speaking quickly but calmly, ever articulately, and with vivid images to convey abstruse points. 
Admittedly, Dobson’s method of argument can be very rhetorical. Is this good teaching, or suspect science? Dobson is noted for out‑of‑the‑mainstream cosmological views. (Of course, all cosmological views tend to be outlandish.) For example, he insists that the Big Bang theory must be wrong because "Nothing doesn't exist," so something cannot have come out of nothing. This way of arguing physics by means of verbal flourish has long gone out of favor. But Dobson welcomes skepticism. As far as he is concerned, the only assurance that someone is really listening is that they express doubts. I heard him address many questions, and I could not help but be impressed by his technical assurance and ingenuity as well as his occasional acknowledgments that he did not have an answer. 
A former Vedantic monk, Dobson sees the universe as "apparitional." Just as a coil of rope may be mistaken for a snake, our perception of the whole world as consisting of a multiplicity of changing things in a spatially and temporally bounded cosmos is "based on a boo‑boo." Science has the power to reveal this truth. For example, according to Einstein's special theory of relativity, spatial distance is negated by temporal recession; hence, all things are, despite appearances, "adjacent," not separated. But, even aside from science, the individual who becomes like a child, indifferent to the "two prime genetic directives" to fend for oneself and the species, will be able to see the underlying One. 

As John Dobson boiled his free range hen's eggs on our kitchen stove, he strove for the infinite.