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Star Struck : Astronomy: John Dobson's passion is to bring the heavens to ground level with his low-tech telescopes.

January 23, 1991|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun is a big green ball.

The universe is raisin pudding.

And the sidewalk astronomer wants everyone to see the heavens.

So he crisscrosses the land in an old orange van, stopping where there are people. Street corners, parks, parking lots. He pulls out his strange telescopes, built of cardboard and scrap wood and portholes. Crowds gather around.

Look, he says. Peer at the cosmos.

"If they don't see the universe, they won't wonder about it," he said. "What's the use of somebody who doesn't wonder? If they don't wonder, they're dead."

It is an aerie world that John Dobson inhabits. Nebulae and quasars, dark matter and light-years. He wants you to join him up there.

But first, some plain talk and Earth-bound facts:

Dobson is 75 years old and virtually broke. He was trained as a chemist, became a monk, then revolutionized astronomy.

The "Dobsonian" telescope--as his homemade design is now called--is the first high-powered telescope that amateur astronomers can either build or buy inexpensively. Thousands of these stargazing contraptions are pointed at the sky from back yards around the world.

"He has allowed the public to look at things they could only see in pictures before," said Stephen O'Meara, associate editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. "The 'Dobsonian' telescopes are probably the most popular telescope on the market."

The inventor might have become wealthy for his efforts. But he didn't even try; he was too busy preaching. Dobson tours national parks in summer and works the cities during winter.

He speaks in layman's words.

Jupiter looks like a straw hat, he says. Stars orbit like lonely ships passing in the night.

A new KCET-TV series, "The Astronomers," documents his work, among that of others, and Dobson was in town last week to publicize the show, which begins April 15. He took the opportunity to visit high schools, a college and local astronomy clubs and found time to set up his telescopes.

"Come see. Come see."

Crowds gathered around.

"Curiosity is a characteristic of our species. Everybody wants to understand the universe," he said. "They're just waiting for somebody to show it to them."

To understand Dobson and what he does, know that his life has been a curious tug-of-war between science and religion.

He was raised at Peking University, where his grandfather and father taught, then came to the United States and eventually studied chemistry at UC Berkeley. A suitable career ensued.

But equations and formulas could not answer all the young man's questions. So, at age 28, he left it all behind to join a Rama Krishna monastery in San Francisco. Dobson went searching for ultimate truth.

Clues, he supposed, might lay in the stars.

The penniless young monk built a telescope from whatever he could scavenge. A cardboard roll served as a tube. Portholes and glass jug bottoms were ground into mirrors. Dobson used wood and plastic to make a version of an "altazimuth" mount that would someday make him famous.

Years passed and he built more telescopes, often wheeling them into the street so that passersby could look. He assumed that everybody was as fascinated by the cosmos as he was. His hobby became a passion.

Fellow monks worried. They thought Dobson was, well, obsessive. He tried to hide it. He got neighborhood kids to keep his telescopes in their garages. But there was no hiding the time he spent outside monastery walls.

"I finally got kicked out," he said.

The year was 1967. Dobson landed on the streets and survived, as he does today, only with the support of friends. His astronomical mission continued.

Others wanted to learn to make his telescopes. He gave classes and started the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. The amateur club soon attracted crowds to its nighttime stargazing parties on city streets and in Ghirardelli Square.

Word of Dobson began to spread.

Sun glittered in a sky swept blue by Santa Ana winds. It was last Wednesday, and Dobson set up his solar telescope in the central courtyard at Occidental College.

"Come see the sunspots," he called out.

Students on lunch break drew near. Dobson had slipped into his showman's persona, the one that caused Smithsonian magazine to call him a "carny barker for the cosmos."

"The sun's a big green ball," he said, because it looks that way through the telescope's filters. "The sunspots are magneto-hydrodynamic zits on the face of the sun."

One of the students who approached was Christopher Del Negro. He had met Dobson last spring, when the sidewalk astronomer was giving nightly shows outside Griffith Observatory.

"He was just kicking back with his telescope in the parking lot. We were looking at Jupiter," Del Negro recalled. "The observatory also had its big telescope focused on Jupiter, but the line for Dobson's was much longer."

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