Date: September 14, 2010

Title: A Tribute to John Dobson on His 95th Birthday


Podcaster: Andy Poniros

Organization: You can soon listen to Andy Poniros Productions podcasts –

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Description: John Dobson, amateur astronomer, cosmologist, and co-founder of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, revolutionized amateur astronomy and telescope making with his design of the Dobsonian Telescope Mount. In this episode of 365 Days of Astronomy, Andy Poniros talks about John Dobson’s life and asks him questions about his invention, the Sidewalk Astronmers, and the universe.

Bio: Andy Poniros is a JPL / NASA public outreach volunteer. When he’s not spending time with his family, he enjoys telescope building, and educating the public in the fields of astronomy & space exploration. He is currently working on other astronomy & space exploration podcasts for children and adults.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the NASA Lunar Science Institute at, proud co-Founders of International Observe the Moon Night, around the globe on September 18th. More information at



Today is a very special day…it’s the 95th birthday of John Dobson.

John Lowry Dobson known to many as the “Pied Piper of Astronomy” and the “MacGuyer of Telescope Making” was born in Peking China, on September 14, 1915.

At a very young age, John learned physics from his father, a professor at Peking University, and was fascinated by Einstein’s work and the forces of gravity.

Due to political and social unrest, John and his family moved to San Francisco, California when he was 12 years old.

He later attended the University of California at Berkley, where he completed his Bachelors Degree of Science in Chemistry in 1943.

Soon after completing his degree, John worked as a chemist on the Manhattan Project.

After a short period of time, John realized that he did not want to pursue a career in defense related work, so he went back to the Vendanta monastery in 1944, were he became a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and dedicated his life to public service for the next 23 years.

The word “Vedanta” means, “culmination of knowledge”, and while at the monastery, John was given the assignment of reconciling the teachings of religion with those of science.

In order to see the universe that had fascinated John from the time he was a young boy living in China, John decided to build his own telescope.

While living in a monastery, resources for building telescopes were limited, so John used discarded house shingles, damaged long playing records, cardboard tubes, leftover pieces of plumbing supplies, eyepieces from broken binoculars, and porthole glass to build his telescopes and mounts.

After building a telescope and seeing a first quarter moon for the first time, John was astonished, and realized that everyone must have the opportunity to look through a telescope.

John continued his quest with a great passion and spent many sleepless nights grinding porthole glass under water into telescope mirrors, as to not wake up others in the monastery.

John’s great desire to show people the night sky through his telescope and help others build their own, was perceived by the Vedantans as taking time away from his daily duties.
Due to some misunderstandings about John by the Swami, John was asked to leave the monastery in 1967.

Without a job and career, John decided to continue dedicating his life to public service and returned to San Francisco.

A few months after his return, he co-founded an astronomy club called the “San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers”. A group of amateur astronomers dedicated to public service through telescope building and other public outreach events.

The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers began to grow rapidly, fueling the “Dobsoinian Revolution”. And soon, amateur star party events began to increase in attendance, with large aperture telescopes occupying the observing fields.

Before the “Dobsonian Revolution”, an amateur owning a telescope with a 4” aperture was considered to have a large telescope. And because John never considered patenting his invention, today affordable Dobsonian telescopes have apertures as large as 40”, allowing people to see many times furthers in to the cosmos. A vehicle, that only professional astronomers had the privilege of using at one time.

I have had the opportunity to interview John Dobson and would like to share his answers to some of my questions:

Andy…In your youth you were very interested in Einstein’s work and gravity. What made you decide to become a chemist?

John…I went to the university originally in 1934 …to study biochemistry to keep Einstein alive. So he that he could figure this thing out….I figured that the best chance of figuring out this universe was to keep Einstein alive…So, that’s why I went to the university…that’s why I studied chemistry.

Andy….How does someone become a chemist on the Manhattan Project?

John…Well in 1943, we were in the middle of World War II… OK… and you graduate on Sunday and on Monday you have only two choices, a riffle or a war work job. There were no other choices, unless you were a girl.

Andy…After you left you job with the Manhattan Project you went back to the monastery…that’s where you wanted to be…is that right?

John…That’s where I wanted to be, yes… and after a while Swami assigned the job to two of us… put science and religion together….so, that’s been my job description for fifty years.

Andy… What made you decide to build your own telescope?

I wanted to see what the heck the universe looked like….and a, I knew you can’t see it very well naked eye…and so, first I wanted to make a telescope, and I got a little lens and made a stupid little telescope…and then one of my friends in the monastery told me, “you can grind your own glass”, I said, “you’re nuts”…but he showed me that you really can grind your own glass…and we started with a twelve inch porthole, that my friend had…we had to take care of this friend when he had jaundice…and so, he had this porthole on his kitchen table…we asked him on the phone…”how would you like to have that made into a telescope?”…well, he would love it…so, that’s how we started… we started with a twelve incher.

Andy ….What gave you the idea to invent the Dobsonian telescope mount?

John…That’s the easiest way to aim above the horizon, it’s the same the way that the cannons go…If you want to aim at the sky you have to go round and round…you have to go up and down…there’s nothing else you have to do.

Andy…What do you think was the reason for the snowballing effect of the Dobsionian Revolution?

John…In the Sixties, if you went out with the astronomers….they were taking pictures with their little telescopes…they had them all set up so they track things across the sky for photography…. and we weren’t doing that… so we don’t have to do all that complicated machinery…we just push the thing around by hand…and so, we could make much bigger telescopes and hall them around like that…so, that’s what happened…a…what happen was, that the amateur astronomers saw all these great big telescopes running around…and they thought…we could do that if we didn’t have to take these stupid pictures…ha, ha, ha.

Andy…I understand that you have a problem with the Big Bang Theory?

John…As I see it…a…the Big Bang takes non-existence for granted… and gets the universe out of nothing.

Andy…Why do you think it’s important to educate the public?

John…Very few people know were they live…they think they’re born in some stupid town…no, there born on an Earth in a solar system, in a galaxy…that’s part of your address..ha.

Andy…What do you think helped the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers to become so well known?

John…Brian Rhodes and I made a Twenty four incher…that sleeps three in the tube!…And we’ve hauled that more than eighty thousand miles!…through the national parks and the Indian reservations and state parks…and all over the place…we hauled that…It’s been up to Canada and down to Mexico……It’s really that twenty four incher that ..a…made the Sidewalk Astronomers public.

The “San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers” have grown to become the “Sidewalk Astronomers” and today number in the thousands on five continents around the globe, serving the public from busy street corners to national parks. All sharing the same goal, to give people the opportunity to build low cost telescopes, and view the universe we live in.

Even though everyone that owns or has looked through eyepiece of a Dobsonian telescope is not a Sidewalk Astronomer, we all have one thing in common. We have experienced the power of the Dobsonian telescope.

Happy 95th Birthday John!

We all thank you for your great contributions to astronomy and your relentless passion to public service.

And I personally thank you for enlightening me with your simplicity of telescope making and recycling universe theory… but most importantly, thank you teaching me the value of obtaining knowledge with an open mind.

For more information regarding John Dobson, The Sidewalk Astronomers, and plans to build his original Dobsonian Telescope and Dobsonian Sun Telescope, go to:

I’m Andy Poniros, and thanks for listening to this 365 Days of Astronomy podcast!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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