John Dobson

From Academic Kids

This article is about John L. Dobson, the astronomer. For John Dobson, the British architect, see John Dobson (architect).
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John L. Dobson (born September 14, 1915) is a highly influential amateur astronomer who has been dubbed the "pied piper of astronomy" and the "star monk". He was the only amateur astronomer highlighted in the PBS series The Astronomers, and has appeared twice on The Tonight Show when hosted by Johnny Carson. He has also been featured in two recent documentaries, Universe–The Cosmology Quest [1] ( and A Sidewalk Astronomer [2] (

He was born in Beijing, China. His maternal grandfather founded Peking University, his mother was a musician, and his father taught zoology at the University. He and his parents moved to San Francisco, California in 1927. His father accepted a teaching position at Lowell High School and taught there until the 1950s. He spent 23 years in a monastery, after which he became more active in promoting astronomy, and his own brand of cosmology.


Dobson's time at the monastery

John Dobson was an atheist through high school, but over time he came to believe that there was more to the Universe. He enquired about joining a monastery in 1940, but was turned away at the time in order to complete his studies. He took a degree in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley in 1943 and joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco in 1944, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order.

During his time at the monastery, he became very interested in the workings of the Universe. His interest led to activities in telescope building in order to understand more of the Universe. To this end, he often offered assistance and corresponded about his work with those outside. Telescope building was not part of the curriculum at the monastery, however, and much of his correspondence had to be in code so as to attract less attention. For instance, a telescope was referred to as a "geranium", which is a type of flower. A "potted geranium" referred to a telescope that was in a tube and rocker, while a "geranium in bloom" referred to a telescope whose mirror was now aluminized.

Eventually John Dobson was given the option of either leaving the order, or to cease his telescope building. At the time he chose to cease building telescopes, but this decision did not last for long and he was eventually asked by his religious superiors to leave.

Later he was asked to speak at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood and has continued to spend several weeks each year teaching telescope and cosmology classes there.

Promotion of astronomy

Having left the order in 1967, Dobson became a co-founder of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, an organization that aims to popularize astronomy among people on the street. It was also at this time that his simple form of mount, which came to be known as the Dobsonian telescope mount, became well known.

The Dobsonian mount

The Dobsonian mount is a simple way of mounting a telescope, based on the altazimuth mount that simply allows for it to be aimed at a particular point in the sky, without worrying about more complicated mechanics for automatically tracking the part of the sky that is being watched.

In Dobson's own reasoning, the design is simply the easiest way to build a mount that will allow a telescope to point anywhere in the sky. He is reluctant to take credit for the design, however, on the grounds that he simply built it that way because it was all he needed, and he was "too retarded" to build a more sophisticated equatorial telescope mount. With its simplicity of construction and use, the Dobsonian mount has become an extremely popular mount today, particularly for large amateur telescopes.

Sidewalk Astronomers

Having cheaply constructed several telescopes that were easy to use, including a 24-inch telescope that was built for approximately $300, John Dobson co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in coordination with two other people. Rather than have regular meetings, the organisation simply set up telescopes on the sidewalk during clear evenings, offering to show and explain the night sky to people passing by.

In an unexpected event, the Sidewalk Astronomers were invited to the Riverside Telescope Makers' meeting in 1968 - 1969. As most telescopes at such meetings tended to be smaller, on equatorial mounts, as well as designed and used for astrophotography rather than optical viewing, the 24-inch Dobsonian mounted telescope brought by the Sidewalk Astronomers was very unconventional. Surprisingly and somewhat controversially at the time, Dobson's telescope tied in first prize for best optics, and was awarded the runner up for mechanics, despite the mechanics of the telescope and its mount being relatively simple.

Since then, Sidewalk Astronomers has become a very prominent organization, well known for its taking of astronomy to the public. The organization now has members throughout the world, and continues to promote public service astronomy by putting telescopes on street corners in urban areas. Members of the organisation also visit national parks giving slide show presentations, providing telescope viewing, and explaining the Universe to people.


John Dobson, himself, is a popular and famous figure among astronomers, and he travels to many amateur meetings and star parties around the world. He frequently uses this attention to promote his somewhat unorthodox views about cosmology.

Dobson is a strong critic of the Big Bang model that is accepted by most cosmologists, labelling it as "fudge without walnuts". He reasons that it is illogical to get something out of nothing. He also alleges many complicated flaws, particularly the inconsistency of dark matter, that cannot be explained without resorting to what he considers increasingly complicated, unlikely and unsupported theories. In essence, Dobson claims that physicists have been inventing new physics to match the Big Bang model. He is also a critic of the education system, alleging that it trains new scientists to accept the Big Bang model rather than evaluate it critically.

Instead, he promotes his own Recycling Model of the Universe. His model is based on Albert Einstein's assertion in general relativity that energy equals matter, and on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Put simply, Dobson contends that although the Universe is forever expanding, Hydrogen atoms "recycle" over time in a way comparable with quantum tunneling. Entropy therefore remains constant, because atoms rebuild their order as they recycle.

Critics of Dobson, however, claim that his own cosmological model is not well based on science, and that his rubbishing of the predominant cosmological theories has been through quoting people and theories incorrectly, and out of context.

Publications by John Dobson

Dobson authored the 1991 book How and Why to Make a User-Friendly Sidewalk Telescope (ISBN 0913399647) with editor Norman Sperling. This book helped popularize what came to be known as the Dobsonian mount, and treats the "why" as importantly as the "how". It covers Dobson's background and his philosophy on astronomy and the universe, and his belief in the importance of popular access to astronomy for proper appreciation of the universe. John Dobson is now in the process of publishing Beyond Space and Time and The Moon is New.

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