John Lowry Dobson gave people a ‘fresh view of the stars’

By Douglas Martin / New York Times News Service

Hour after hour, night after night, decade after decade, all over planet Earth, John Lowry Dobson rolled his homemade telescopes to street corners and national parks to show people the heavens.

“Look at Saturn,” he would say. “No charge.”

He gave hundreds of thousands of people a fresh view of the stars, prompting Smithsonian magazine to describe him as a “carny barker for the cosmos.” A lanky figure with a ponytail, he toured with his road show in a creaky former school bus, which he called Starship Centaurus A, after a galaxy. The bus towed one of Dobson’s bulkier creations, a telescope as large as a midsize automobile.

He died Jan. 15, at 98 — or as he might have put it, 123 days into his 99th orbit around the sun.

Dobson is credited with developing the first, high-powered, portable telescope that amateur astronomers could build inexpensively. And tens of thousands have done so. Dobsonian telescopes, as they are known generically, are still a popular item on the market, although Dobson chose not to benefit from them commercially.

He also founded a stargazing club, Sidewalk Astronomers, which announced his death, in Burbank, Calif. The organization has chapters on every continent but Antarctica. Dobson wrote books with inviting titles (“Astronomy for Children Under 80” is one), and he appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” In 2005, he was the subject of a documentary feature, “A Sidewalk Astronomer,” which was directed by Jeffrey Fox Jacobs.

Most compelling to Dobson was divining what “the whole ball of wax” means. He delved into matters like the origin of the universe with both passersby on the street and astrophysicists. He denounced the Big Bang theory on the grounds that something cannot come from nothing — a view contrary to what many scientists believe — and wrote equations that he contended proved his point.

All this was perhaps par for the course for a man who spent 23 years living as a monk in a monastery of the Vedanta Society, a Hindu-inspired order noted for its intellectual rigor and vows of chastity. The head swami there assigned Dobson to reconcile Hindu scripture with modern physics, Dobson said.

“I don’t know what your problems are, but that was mine,” he was quoted as saying in a biography prepared by friends.

It was this mission that prompted Dobson to scrounge through trash for materials to make his first telescope.

He was born on Sept. 14, 1915, in Beijing, where his parents were Methodist missionaries. As a child, he said, he lay on his back, gazed upward and imagined the sky as a vast ocean.

After leaving China because of political unrest, the family settled in San Francisco, and Dobson attended the University of California-Berkeley, graduating with a chemistry degree. Afterward he joined the Ramakrishna monastery in Sacramento, Calif., where he led worship services and cared for the flowers.

As part of his quest to reconcile religion and science, Dobson decided to make a telescope to look at the universe. As material he used plywood, cardboard tubes, glass from ship portholes and even cereal boxes. What resulted was essentially the same as the telescope Sir Isaac Newton had developed in the 17th century: a tube with a concave mirror at the bottom to gather light and a flat, secondary mirror near the top to bounce light out to the eyepiece.

Dobson’s chief innovation was creating an axis at the base on a wooden mount that could move, not just up and down, but also sideways, like a cannon.

Dobson never sought a patent on his design or a copyright for the name, saying he did not care about money and wanted the telescopes distributed as widely as possible. Commercial manufacturers, seizing on the design, eventually did, selling versions in kits. Amateurs used them to see phenomena previously visible only to professional astronomers — precisely as Dobson had hoped. He said he had always wanted to share the exhilaration he felt at seeing, for the first time, a three-quarters-full moon through a telescope he had made.

“It looked as if we’re coming in for a landing,” he said. “I thought, everybody has to see this.”

The abbot expelled Dobson from the Hindu monastery in 1967, saying he was spending too much time outside the monastery with his telescopes. Dobson left with only a $50 bill, slept on friends’ floors in San Francisco and foraged for food in Golden Gate Park. Though he lectured regularly, he never had a steady source of income. He told The Los Angeles Times in 2005 that the last year he had paid income tax was 1944.

Dobson had a son, Loren, with Ruth Ballard, a professor of genetics at Sacramento State University. They both survive him.

Dobson had a knack for phrasemaking that delighted audiences at the national parks he often visited. At Yellowstone, he was asked if the sky was part of the park. “No,” he said, “the park is part of the sky.”

His long view was long indeed. Human bodies, he told an audience, are made of stardust. He pointed to a photo of a nebula.

“If you give this cloud another 10 billion years,” he said, “it will go to school and chew gum.”