John Dobson, Born and Died (Into A Universe)

John Dobson reading during a quiet moment at the CT Star Party in 2001.

John Dobson reading during a quiet moment at the CT Star Party in 2001. By Stacey Severn. Used with Permission.

John Dobson, inventor of the Dobsonian telescope mount and an evangelist of sidewalk astronomy, died yesterday. He completed 98 orbits around the sun, a journey of about 57 billion miles. It was a long, colorful journey. John’s is a huge passing, and virtually every astronomy outlet will host a remembrance of him today. Bob King does a good job of explaining Dobson’s importance to astronomy at Universe Today. A more personal account comes from Gary at AstroSG in Singapore, which also shows just how widespread Dobson’s impact was across our little world. To get a good sense of John’s unique and feisty character, listen to this conversation at the Planetary Society.

John was one of the heroes of public astronomy, and in a very real sense, he is responsible for me accepting my vocation as a public outreach astronomer, something I have been working to realize ever since I first met him in the Autumn of 2008.

Here is how I told that story in Manifesto, this blog’s first post, in March, 2009:

Sidewalk Astronomy, as a term for nerds letting the general public look through their telescopes, was coined in the 1960s, when a feisty Vedanta Hindu monk named John Dobson started building large telescopes out of garbage he found lying about and setting them up to educate passersby in San Francisco. The monastery, tired of him secretly grinding mirrors in the bathroom after curfew, threw him out, and like a latter day Johnny Appleseed John Dobson has been a mendicant ever since, traveling around and showing the universe to anyone who will look.

I met John Dobson at a star party in the mountains of Pennsylvania last summer. (A star party is a gathering of sometimes thousands of amateur astronomers, who all camp out on a big open field and, weather cooperating, look at the sky together. It’s a lovely nerd fest.) I asked John what he wanted people to get out of their encounter with the night sky, and he quipped, “You were not born in some little town in Western New York. You were born into a universe.”

Memory is a funny thing. When I wrote this, I was sure I asked the question, and I was pretty sure of the answer, though I changed the location to Western New York because otherwise it made less sense to my Finger Lakes audience. (I figure John himself changed it to fit the area he was speaking, too.) But today I found a youtube video of that talk, and it’s clearly not me asking the question and the answer was feistier than I remember.

Q: If there was one thing you wanted to get across to the non-astronomical public, about the sky, about the universe, what would it be?
A: The one thing I want to get across to the public is “WHERE THE HELL YOU GOT BORN?” They think they got born in some stupid town in Pennsylvania or Connecticut…they get born into a universe you jerks!

Regardless, it was the question on my mind and it was the answer I needed. I’m not sure what journey John has sent me on, nor how long I will have to go. But it’s good to know the purpose of the journey, if not the outcome. John must be resting easily knowing that so many will pick up where he has left off. If there is some kind of afterlife, I suspect John is already at the edge of the universe, investigating if his recycling steady-state cosmology (which is not widely accepted by the scientific community) is true or not. I think he’d be okay with being wrong. It’s the journey to find out that matters.

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