Obituary: John Dobson / Ex-monk who fostered amateur stargazing

Sept. 14, 1915 - Jan. 15, 2014

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John Dobson, a former monk and self-taught stargazer who developed a powerful, inexpensive telescope that almost anyone could build and showed thousands how to do it during five decades as one of public astronomy's most influential evangelists, has died. He was 98. Mr. Dobson died Jan. 15 at a hospital in Burbank, Calif., said Bob Alborzian, coordinator of the Burbank chapter of Sidewalk Astronomers, an international organization that Mr. Dobson helped found in 1968. Mr. Dobson had been in poor health since a stroke a few years ago.

Called the "Johnny Appleseed of amateur astronomy," Mr. Dobson started building scopes in the 1950s as a monk at the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco. His passion for the hobby led to his expulsion, freeing him to become a roving ambassador for the simple joys of studying the night sky.

Mr. Dobson used cheap or salvaged materials such as ship portholes and cardboard tubing to make his telescopes, the most radical feature of which is a simple, sturdy and highly effective wooden mount that allows users to easily point the scope at any spot in the sky.

His design was eventually embraced by commercial manufacturers, who advertise the telescopes as "Dobsonians." They remain "one of the most popular telescopes on the market," said Dennis di Cicco, senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Dobsonian telescopes have made important contributions to astronomy, including the discovery in 1995 of Comet Hale-Bopp, the farthest comet ever discovered by amateurs. One of its namesakes, Tom Bopp, was using a Dobsonian.

Mr. Dobson was born Sept. 14, 1915, in Beijing. His mother was a musician and his father taught zoology at Peking University. Nervous about political unrest in China, his family relocated to San Francisco in 1927. He earned a degree in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1943 and went to work in the defense field.

An atheist since high school, he began to study Eastern religions after attending a lecture by Swami Ashokananda of the Vedanta Society. In 1944 he joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco, where he was asked to reconcile the order's teachings with science.

Transferred in 1958 to the order's Sacramento monastery, he began building telescopes in earnest. Soon he took to stealth, smuggling parts into the monastery in fertilizer boxes after his superiors told him his activities were inappropriate for a monk.

He was often away from the monastery to help neighbors in the community construct their own scopes. That is what the other monks thought he was doing when they decided to expel him in 1967. According to his biography on the Sidewalk Astronomers website, he wasn't neglecting his monastic duties that time but was weeding the lawn behind a monastery wall. Nevertheless, he was thrown out.

He hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he began teaching and setting up his telescopes on street corners. Soon, he was barnstorming the country, setting up his scopes in shopping center parking lots and national parks -- anyplace, he said, "where dark skies and the public collide."


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