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optical astronomer

John Dobson (astronomer)

This article is about John L. Dobson, the astronomer. For other men with a similar name, see John Dobson.

John Lowry Dobson (born September 14, 1915) is a highly influential amateur astronomer. He is most well known in astronomy circles because his name is attached to the popular Dobsonian telescope design. He is credited for inventing the design, which is used by a large number of amateur astronomers. He is lesser known for his efforts to promote awareness of astronomy through sidewalk astronomy. Dobson's popularity, particularly his association with amateur telescope making, has made him a frequent guest at meetings of amateur astronomers. He often leverages this popularity to draw attention to his unorthodox views of cosmology.

John Dobson has been dubbed by some as the "pied piper of astronomy", and the "star monk". He was the only amateur astronomer highlighted in the PBS series The Astronomers, and appeared twice on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He has also been featured in two recent documentaries, Universe–The Cosmology Quest and A Sidewalk Astronomer.

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 nonstandard cosmology.

Dobson's time at the monastery

John Dobson was an atheist through high school, and over time 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 Society monastery in San Francisco in 1944, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order.

During his time at the monastery, his interest in astronomy 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 the monastery. Telescope building was not part of the curriculum at the monastery, however, and much of his correspondence was written 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 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 ceasing his telescope building or leaving the order. At the time he chose to stop building telescopes.

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 of Southern California in Hollywood, and has continued to spend two months there each year teaching telescope and cosmology classes. He spends two more 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.

In 2004, the Crater Lake Institute presented John Dobson with its Annual Award for Excellence in Public Service for pioneering sidewalk astronomy in the national parks and forests, "where curious minds and dark skies collide." In 2005, the Smithsonian magazine listed John Dobson as among 35 individuals who have made a major difference during the lifetime of that periodical.

The Dobsonian telescope

John Dobson designed a very simple, low cost alt-azimuth mounted Newtonian telescope that employs common materials such as plywood, formica, PVC closet flanges, cardboard construction tubs, recycled porthole glass, and indoor-outdoor carpet. This type of simplified Newtonian telescope and mount is popularly referred to as a Dobsonian telescope. Using this construction method makes the typical Dobsonian telescope large, portable, inexpensive, and easy to manufacture.

The design is named after Dobson because he is credited for being the first person to have combined all these construction techniques in a single 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.

Sidewalk astronomers

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 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.

Unexpectedly, the Sidewalk Astronomers were invited to the Riverside Telescope Makers' meeting in 1969. The Dobsonian telescope brought by the Sidewalk Astronomers was unconventional, because most telescopes at such meetings tended to be smaller, on equatorial mounts, and designed for astrophotography rather than optical viewing. Surprisingly and controversially at the time, Dobson's telescope tied in first prize for best optics. It was also awarded the runner up prize for mechanics, despite the mechanics of the telescope and its mount being relatively simple.

Sidewalk Astronomers has since become a prominent organization, recognised for its taking of astronomy to the public. The current organization 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

Cosmology

Dobson often uses his speaking opportunities at astronomical societies, and in the media, to challenge the orthodoxy of the generally accepted Big Bang model, and to promote alternative views of cosmology. Dobson believes that the Big Bang model is often taken for granted, and has not been properly criticised by the scientific community. His primary interest is to convince people that the Big Bang model does not hold up, and to encourage people to evaluate the model for themselves. He also presents his own theory of the Universe.

Dobson's criticism of the Big Bang model

Dobson is a strong critic of the Big Bang model, labeling it as "fudge without walnuts". In The Equations of Maya, Dobson writes: “The Big Bang cosmologists want to get the Universe out of nothing. It’s like asking us to believe that nothing made everything out of nothing. But that’s not what shows in our physics.”

He suggests that the Big Bang model has many flaws and that the theory has become quite “tortured” in order to keep the model viable, likening it to the Ptolemaic system. He cites 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, recently with a "mystery" called dark energy. He is also a critic of an education system which, he asserts, indoctrinates young scientists in the Big Bang model “without presenting any of the problems” with it. Ultimately, Dobson is more interested in challenging people to broaden their thinking, and to think more critically, than to debate which cosmological model is correct.

Dobson's cosmological theory

Dobson advocates a “Recycling” model, not unlike a Steady State model of the universe. His model is drawn from Albert Einstein's assertion in general relativity that energy equals matter, and on Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the "Pauli's Verbot", Pauli's exclusion principle. He says that cosmologists have, in general, overlooked what is going on at the edge of the universe. Dobson claims that at the edge, we know a great deal about a particle’s momentum, so “by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, if our uncertainty in the momentum approaches zero, our uncertainty in where the particles are must approach infinity. The hydrogen simply ‘tunnels’ back in.”

Put simply, Dobson contends that although the universe is forever expanding, matter “recycles” over time in a way comparable with quantum tunneling. Entropy therefore remains constant, because atoms rebuild their order as they recycle.

In Origins Dobson addresses the creation of life: “For a Big Bang cosmology, in which the early Universe was extremely hot, a discussion of the origin of life is of course appropriate, since life could not have been with us from the beginning. But for a Steady State model, in which the Universe is without beginning, perhaps life itself could be without beginning.” Dobson also points out the Pasteur-Darwin paradox: “Pasteur thought that he had shown that life does not arise from non-living matter but only from previous life. Darwin seems to have taken the other view, namely, that it might have arisen from ‘some warm pool’.”

Criticism of Dobson's cosmological claims

Dobson’s views about cosmology are controversial, especially since the Big Bang theory is the most commonly accepted theory among most scientists. Critics of Dobson claim that his own cosmological model is not well based on science, and that his arguments against the predominant cosmological model have 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 0-913399-64-7) 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 (2004) and The Moon is New (2008).

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