Innovator Profile: John Dobson

We're going to be profiling some people that it would be worth reading up on because of the their influence. The first one is John Dobson. If you know about Astronomy then you have probably heard the term "Dobsonian."

This is a very simple kind of telescope that revolutionized astronomy by giving amateurs access to cheap, powerful telescopes. In a way, it mirrors the PC revolution, and happened almost at the same time. Around that time I (and probably many of you, too) were learning on a Commodore-64 at home and an Apple at school (a bit pricey for the home) I also read about the Dobsonian in Astronomy Magazine. So, I saved up from my paper route to get a mirror, then I bought some basic household supplies and in a couple of days - voila - I had an 8" reflecting telescope. With it you could see everything - the double cluster of stars in Perseus, the Orion Nebula, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the Lagoon Nebula in Sagittarius and the mysterious and the numerous silvery mist galaxies in the constellation Ursa Major, starting with M-81 and continuing with those in the New General Catalogue. (NGC)

Reprint of NY Times story

John Dobson was an atheist through high school, but over time he became interested in the Universe and its workings. 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, his astronomy 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 he 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.

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 telescope, which came to be known as the Dobsonian, became well known.

He was later asked to speak at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood, and has continued to spend two months there each year teaching telescope and cosmology classes. He spends another two months at his home in San Francisco, and spends most of the rest of each year travelling as an invited guest for astronomical societies, where he speaks about telescope building, sidewalk astronomy, and his views of cosmology and the scientific establishment.

The Dobsonian telescope is a large, portable, inexpensive, and easy to manufacture altazimuth mount telescope. The design is named after Dobson because he is credited for being the first person to have applied the mount's principles to telescope design. He is reluctant to take credit, however, pointing out that he built it that way because it was all he needed. In his own words, he jokes that he was "too retarded" to build a more sophisticated telescope with an equatorial telescope mount. With its simplicity of construction and use, the Dobsonian has become a very popular design today, particularly for large amateur telescopes.

John Dobson co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in coordination with two other people, having cheaply constructed several telescopes that were easy to use, including a 24-inch telescope that was built for approximately US$300. 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.

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