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Pied Piper of Astronomy's to present program: John Dobson to be honored by Crater Lake Institute for public service

 

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Herald and News
Klamath Falls, Oregon
July 15, 2004
By LEE JUILLERAT

Astronomer John Dobson speaks to a group of people about telescope construction. Dobson will present a program at the Fort Klamath Museum July 30 at 8 p.m.

 

John Dobson, who's been called the "Pied Piper of Astronomy," "Star Monk" and the "MacGyver of Astronomy," will received the 2004 Crater Lake Institute Award for Excellence in Public Service.


Institute director Ron Mastrogiuseppe said Dobson is being honored "for inspiring dreams about places beyond earth through pioneering sidewalk astronomy in our national parks and forest, where curiosity and dark skies meet."

"He is arguably the most influential person in amateur astronomy in the last 30 years," Mastrogiuseppe said of Dobson. "He has almost single-handedly revolutionized backyard astronomy by bringing it out to the street, making it accessible for anyone who has ever looked up in wonder, and asked 'Why?' "

As part of his Southern Oregon visit, Dobson will give a program at the Fort Klamath Museum 8 p.m. Friday, July 30. People attending are encouraged to bring their telescopes.

Owen Hoffman, a former Crater Lake ranger who is on the Institute's board of directors, said Dobson "often mentioned his visits to Crater Lake National Park and the joy of introducing those who were curious to stay out after dark to the wonders of the night sky," and had fond memories of various park rangers.

 

Dobson, who was born in Peking, China, Sept. 14, 1915, and moved with his family to San Francisco in 1927, earned a degree in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley in 1943. He took defense-related jobs until he joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco in 1944, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. He spent the next 23 years in the monastery.


When he joined the Order, known for its intellectual rigor and public service, he was given the assignment of reconciling the teachings of religion with science.

Dobson wanted to see for himself what the universe looked like so he built his first telescope in 1956, a 2-inch scope made from a lens he bought in a junk store and an eyepiece from an old pair of Zeiss binoculars.

He made his first mirror out of a marine-salvage 12-inch porthole glass. When he looked at the third-quarter moon with his finished telescope, he was surprised and deeply moved by what he saw, planting a desire to share astronomy with others.


Dobson transferred to the Vedanta Monastery in Sacramento in 1958 and became seriously involved in telescope making. The first Sacramento telescope was a 5-inch reflector with a mirror made from the cut-out bottom of a discarded gallon jug.

A friend who wanted Dobson to make a larger telescope donated salvaged portholes that were smuggled into the monastery in fertilizer boxes. He screened his own sand for grinding and made his own rouge out of garden supplies. The work was done without attracting the attention of monks, some who thought public astronomy was not an appropriate pursuit.


Because Dobson was a monk and had no money, he mounted the mirrors using scrap materials. His telescopes were made from discarded hose reels, lumber core cutouts from school house doors and scrap wood - the origin of what has come to be known as the "Dobsonian" mount.

Dobson's desire to make more and larger telescopes and give people access to viewing the solar system put him in increasing peril of expulsion by monastic authorities. Even so, he wheeled his telescopes around the monastery's neighborhood until he was removed from the monastery in 1967.


Dobson had friends who helped to keep him fed, clothed and sheltered. He retrieved telescopes from Sacramento and set them up on San Francisco streets on clear nights, which attracted thousands of viewers. Eventually, he supported himself by teaching classes in telescope making and astronomy.

In 1968, people who made telescopes under Dobson's guidance started the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. By 1970, the group had a 24-inch portable telescope.

The possibility of showing deep sky objects to large numbers of people through very large telescopes led the group to national parks and monuments, Native American reservations and elsewhere.

"Over the years, millions of people world-wide have looked through Sidewalk Astronomers telescopes," Mastrogiuseppe said. "John has helped to simplify the art of mirror making, enabling thousands of kids and adults with no previous experience or special training in optics to experience the joy of turning slabs of glass into powerful eyes into the heavens with their own hands."

 

 

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