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Astronomy’s ‘Pied Piper’ talks about the cosmos

Astronomy’s ‘Pied Piper’ talks about the cosmos
Astronomy’s ‘Pied Piper’ talks about the cosmos
Famed astronomer John Dobson, 92, speaks at Turtle Run Winery near Lanesville last Wednesday. In addition to creating a telescope and mount that now bears his name, Dobson was born in China, worked as a chemist on the Manhattan Project and was a monk for 22 years. (Photo by Alan Stewart)

John Dobson laid out just a few of his life experiences for more than an hour last Wednesday night at Jim and Laura Pfeiffer’s Turtle Run Winery near Lanesville.
He could have gone on forever.
The 92-year-old icon ‘ abstemious, sharp-tongued and extremely quick-witted ‘ had the nearly three dozen people who attended on the edge of their seats as he spoke about being a chemist on the Manhattan Project, his view on the cosmos and his 23 years in San Francisco’s Vendanta Monastery, where he created the type of telescope and mount that now bears his name.
Dobson has been called the ‘Pied Piper of Astronomy,’ thanks in large part to his popular Dobsonian telescope design, which is used by an overwhelming number of amateur astronomers.
The part of the telescope that gathers the light, called the objective, determines the type of telescope. A refractor telescope uses a glass lens as its objective. A reflector telescope, which Dobson’s design utilizes, uses a mirror as its objective. The Dobsonian mount allows a telescope to be easily moved in three planes (up-down, side-to-side and diagonally) and stay where it’s pointed.
To make his original telescopes, Dobson was forced to use junk, as he described it.
‘We didn’t have the comforts that you do now. Remember, I was in a monastery. We used old wagon wheels to roll it around. The mirror was made from a scraped piece of 12-inch porthole glass from a military ship that I had to grind down myself. It took 19 hours of grinding and polishing to make a mirror. I used old hose reels and cut-outs from schoolhouse doors. It was all junk,’ Dobson said. ‘When it was finished, I’d wheel that thing by the mile. A child would see it and ask what it was, and after I’d told them and showed them, I’d ask if they’d like to borrow it. We’d take it to the child’s mother and, if she was brave, she’d take it. If she was smart, she’d take it. If she was neither brave or smart, we’d find another mother who would put it in her garage for her child.
‘It got to the point where you could literally throw a stone between houses who had 12-inchers (telescopes) that had been handmade.’
Dobson is credited for starting the Sidewalk Astronomers in 1968. The SAs have two objectives: to give the people of Earth a chance to see, with their own eyes, celestial objects through good-sized telescopes, and to provide them with information about what they are seeing.
Often, SAs take their homemade Dobsonians to places where people are likely to be, such as street corners, shopping malls, theaters, etc.
During a 1980 star party at the Grand Canyon, 20,000 people showed up during the 16-day event.
‘I’ll show the moon to someone who has never looked through a telescope and they’ll say, ‘Cool.’ I tell them, ‘Oh, it’s not cool. It’s really frigid on the dark side. The light side is hotter than boiling water.’ I enjoy seeing people’s faces light up the first time they see the rings of Saturn.’
Regarding his work on the Manhattan Project, Dobson said he didn’t know what he was working on until he learned that Hiroshima had been bombed.
‘I’m not in a position to say whether it was the right thing to do or not. I know some other things we could have done to kill all of those people, but I’m not going to say what they are,’ Dobson mused.
At last Wednesday’s event, Dobson was made aware of the push for a responsible lighting ordinance in Harrison County.
‘Let me tell you, when they first opened the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, I walked across the bridge the first night it was open. The lights across the bridge that night were low pressure sodium and shielded to 45 degrees off down. You could see the light you were under and one other light, and that’s all the light you could see,’ Dobson said. ‘Now if people got to see what it would be like if the lights don’t shine in your eyes, they would right away agree let’s not have them shine in our eyes. If the public saw what it would be like if (lighting) was done the right way, then they might get behind it.’
Dobson added that the world is still worth fixing: ‘I’ve been around longer than all of you, and I can tell you there’s only one of it, so we need to take care of it.’
But perhaps one of Dobson’s best remarks of the evening came midway through his talk: ‘Very few people restrict what they say to what they know.’