John Dobson in Springfield

by Richard Sanderson
Reproduced from The StarGazer - Volume 5 - Summer, 1989

John Dobson

Like a circuit-riding preacher, 72-year-old John Dobson travels the country promoting astronomy and encouraging people to look beyond their im- mediate surroundings into the starry heavens. For years Dobson has visited national parks, where he set up giant 16-inch, 18-inch, and 24-inch re- flecting telescopes to introduce people to the wonder and beauty of the Universe. Dobson has also promoted astronomy on street corners, and he was the driving force behind the creation of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.

Through necessity, Dobson developed a telescope mounting that is simple, inexpensive, and easily portable, yet very effective. His telescope tubes are generally made out of heavy cardboard Sonotubes, which are used as forms for concrete pilings. The tube rests in a plywood boxlike mounting that moves up and down and sideways on small Teflon pads.

Telescopes employing this mounting design soon came to be called Dobsonians, and they led to the "Dobsonian Revolution" in telescope making. Not only can Dobsonian telescopes be made much larger than conventional instruments which require gears, clutches, motors, and a lot of machining, but they can be constructed by novices using only hand-tools. Thanks to Dobson, thousands of people have made their own telescopes who, in the past, would never have attempted such projects. Anyone who has attended Stellafane for the past decade or two has witnessed a revolution in telescope design not equaled since the time of Russell Porter. There have been a number of innovative telescope developments over the past decades, such as the Maksutov, but none has permeated every corner of telescope making like the Dobsonian.

The atmosphere was electric when John Dobson walked in front of a standing-room-only crowd of star-gazers in the Springfield Science Museum's Tolman Auditorium on April 25, 1989. Dobson was informal from the start, inviting questions throughout the talk and frequently going off on interesting tangents about many facets of astronomy. He challenged and teased the the audience with a bit of humor and sarcasm that turned even a discussion of nuclear physics into an engaging exchange. It was an evening that none of us will soon forget.

As a way of commemorating this memorable evening, I'd like to present the following words and images which I recorded during John Dobson's visit with the Springfield Stars Club.

"When I first made a telescope back in the monastery a long time ago, about 1956 or 1957, I made a 12-incher which is now in the bottom of San Francisco Bay, courtesy of the abbot of the monastery. When we looked at the moon through that, I thought, 'Oh, my God! Everybody's got to see this.' But that's really what got me into trouble and that's what got me thrown out."

The reason I went in for making telescopes is because I saw that the telescopes people were using were too small."

"People need information. Now, in this country to a great extent information is coming down like rain and we run around with umbrellas to keep ourselves dry, but it's not like that in India, believe me it's not like that in India, and I imagine it's not like that elsewhere, but it is like that in this country. But even where it is like that there are lots of people who need to know, and they'll ask you questions or you'll ask them questions.

"People might ask you how far away is Saturn. Now if you want you can tell them it's a billion miles away, but that doesn't do 'em any good - they can't count more than a thousand. So a billion doesn't do them any good. So what I tell them is, while they're looking through the telescope I tell them, if you had a real good Mercedes diesel and if you drove towards Saturn 60 miles an hour, all day and all night without stopping, for one thousand and two hundred years, you could see Saturn like that with your bare eyes.

"If you use those big numbers they can't handle it. There's som cases where you can't do it no matter how hard you try. I'll run one for you. It doesn't matter how hard you try you can't get this across.

"The energy of an atomic bomb is one thirtieth of one ounce or one gram. The energy of the St. Helens explosion was half a kilo or one pound. The energy which the sun uses in one second is 4 1/2-million tons. The sun has been doing like this for 5-billion years and it will continue for another 5-billion years. And when one of those iron-core stars collapses to become a supernova, and it does it in 3/4 of a second, it releases 10 times as much energy as the sun releases in 10-billion years!"

* * *

"The reason they came up with the Big Bang model is because all the distant galaxies seem to be running away from us. The farther away you look the faster they seem to be running. And the simplest and most straightforward and most honest interpretation is that long ago they were all in one place, and they went kapooie and that is why they're running. The faster ones got out there faster because they were going faster, and the nearer ones weren't going so fast and they didn't get so far. Perfectly straightforward. But there were problems.

"Anyone who operates with explosives, and the millitary is full of such personnel, they know perfectly well that after an explosion the different pieces of the exploding missle do not collide. The only reason you are afraid of an explosion is because you are not part of it!

So the proponents of the the Big Bang have this problem. If the thing was an explosion like this, nothing would ever have collided with anything anymore and you cannot get galaxies and stars. Now, a cosmological model that does not account for galaxies and stars is considered to be flawed! So those old Big Bang models die, not even a natural death, but they die.

Then came this other problem. How can we get this explained without that problem arising, and so they came up with the Inflationary Model. So, the Inflationary Model has this bubbly thing going on - it's really more than you can believe - but at any rate with this bubbly thing they can get one bubble colliding with another. But the Inflationary Model requires that the Grand Unified Theory should succeed.

The Grand Unified Theory requires that protons should decay. And the protons aren't decaying. Now if the protons stoutly refuse to decay then the Grand Unified Theories will stoutly die. And if they die, the Inflationary Models dies, and if they die the Big Bang dies and all hell will break loose because all the physicists and all the astronomers and all the cosmologists and all the biologists and all the people who run the television shows have got all their money riding on it.

"Now let's go back a little. The Big Bang Model can be compared to a raisin pudding in the oven, and as the pudding gets bigger and bigger, the raisins get lonelier and lonlier and if you come late for dinner you might get a raisin in your spoon. The Steady State people thought it might be like a barber pole. You've seen these barber poles that have been climbing the walls since you were small but they still haven't made it to the eaves. So the Steady State people thought it might be more like that. As the raisins get lonelier and lonelier new raisins spring up in- between and the Big Bang people said, 'Where did you get these new raisins?' And the Steady State people said, 'Where did you get your raisins?' Now it's not as though the Big Bang people have the raisins stored and the Steady State people didn't know where the raisins are. Nobody knows where the raisins are. So that's the problem with the Big Bang and the Steady State and just because the Big Bang is wrong doesn't mean the Steady State is right and just because the Steady State is wrong doesn't mean the Big Bang is right. They may both be full of hot water!"

* * *

"E=MC2. What this equation says is that what we see as matter is just potential energy. One pound of this stuff is the energy of the St. Helens explosion."

* * *

"I very much wish that everybody who lives in this world would have the chance to look at it through something like a 24 or 36-incher from a mountain peak of, say, 7,000 or 10,000 feet. All them philosophers talk about this Universe without any one of them ever knowing what the hell is going on. Do you think Plato knew the Universe was made out of hydrogen?"

"Alan Sandage had given a very nice talk on the Big Bang, a slow, careful talk on the Big Bang. He gave such a nice talk that I was very pleased with it. All the way through he talked about the Big Bang as a creation event. Now when I went to school, nobody would talk creation event without having soap and water to wash his mouth. Nobody would have done it . . . And here is one of the biggest astronomers walking around on this planet on two legs and he's talking about creation events for 2 hours at a stretch.

"So I asked him, 'Since we are now able to talk about a creation event, why must we assume that in the absence of a Universe and in the absence of space and time there will be nothing?' I said, 'Isn't it unwarranted?' I said, 'To me it seems warranted that in the absence of time we will have the absense of change, because change is something that happens in time.' You remember that famous graffiti, 'Time is for keeping everything from happening at once.'

"So without time we don't have any change. That seems to be warranted. And without space we we can't have things divided. You can't break a cookie into two without space between the halves. So without space whatever exisits would have to be undivided and it couldn't be small. And if it cannot be small, it would have to be infinite. So I said, 'This means the possibility is that what we see is the changeless, the infinite, and the undivided, which seems to me a long way from nothing.'"

"I am not primarily interested in telescopes. I'm primarily interested in the whole Universe. I've got a love affair with the Universe at large, and it's been going on for a long time."

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