Has any living person done more than John Dobson to popularize astronomy? Every amateur is familiar with the telescope that bears his name (which, with characteristic lack of ego, he prefers to call the "Sidewalk Telescope"). Actually, the term Dobsonian, or more simply "Dob," refers to the manually-slewed alt-az mount that Dobson developed to hold a Newtonian telescope This approach allows the most aperture for the buck, making a telescope available to many who couldn't otherwise afford one. By showing people that they, too can grind their own mirror and build an inexpensive mount, Dobson started a quiet revolution that has had a profound effect on amateur astronomy.
Dobson has led a decidedly unorthodox life. He spent 23 years in a monastery; there he developed his spiritual approach to cosmology and a simple approach to telescope-making. Since he had no money, he taught himself to make telescopes out of scrap material -- the design was simple by necessity. His followers formed an organization called the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, showing the public that the wonders of the universe are accessible to them even from a city street corner. Now, their name simplified to the Sidewalk Astronomers, they visit National Parks and other sites around the country where they might find dark skies and large crowds. Millions have looked and been inspired.
John Dobson (right) and friends reinstall the mirror in a sidewalk telescope. Photo by Joe Orman.
It was a sunny winter day at Death Valley National Park that I happened to come across a group of people taking apart a large 'scope on the visitor center lawn. I quickly recognized the spry man with the silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, who was enthusiastically but strictly guiding the operation of cleaning the mirror. Dobson said the weather had been clear and a good crowd had come out to look through the scopes the previous night. I couldn't stay until the next night, but Dobson also had one small solar scope set up that he let me look through.
John Dobson (right) checks the collimation. Photo by Joe Orman.
At that time (December 1996), Dobson was 81 years old. He recently turned 85, celebrating in the most appropriate way: with a massive telescope-building party on the lawn of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. John Dobson is still going strong on his mission to bring the cosmos to the people.