A Sidewalk Astronomer

Jeffrey Fox Jacobs' cheerful documentary profiles John Dobson, the founder of Sidewalk Astronomers, a nonprofit organization with some two dozen chapters around the world. Born Sept. 14, 1915, in Beijing, China, to a musician mother and a zoologist father, Dobson moved with his parents to San Francisco in 1927. He embraced atheism until a lecture by Vedanta...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Jeffrey Fox Jacobs' cheerful documentary profiles John Dobson, the founder of Sidewalk Astronomers, a nonprofit organization with some two dozen chapters around the world. Born Sept. 14, 1915, in Beijing, China, to a musician mother and a zoologist father, Dobson moved with his parents to San Francisco in 1927. He embraced atheism until a lecture by Vedanta Swami Ashokananda convinced him there was "something deeply hidden" behind the surface of everyday life; he studied biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley and entered a Vedanta monastery in 1944. A self-taught astronomer, Dobson figured out how to build a cheap, simple but powerful telescope from scrap, mounted on a cannonlike base that stabilized its long barrel. When his street-corner stargazing attracted attention, he began teaching people to build their own telescopes and was eventually forced to leave the monastery for neglecting his spiritual duties. He never patented the design for what was dubbed the Dobsonian telescope; plans are free for the taking and students are encouraged to share what they've learned. Dobson's own thirst for knowledge is tinged with a fervor more common to religious fanatics; his mission is to blow people's minds with the marvels of the universe. Standing on a corner with one of his homemade telescopes, the slender, 89-year-old Dobson exhorts passersby in his slight Irish accent to "come see the sunspots" by day and "come see the Moon" at night. Most just take a look and go about their business, Dobson says sadly, but some are profoundly touched by what they see, and that's what keeps him going. Dobson peppers his cheerleading for the lifelong pursuit of knowledge with a beguiling combination of vinegary asides, tongue-in-cheek references to "the exterior decorator" who designed the cosmos and homespun comparisons that put the vastness of the heavens into understandable terms. If you had a blanket large enough to cover the red spot on the surface of Jupiter, you could wrap the Earth in it. If the stars in our galaxy were grains of wheat, they'd cover eight acres to a depth of three feet. If the sun were basketball-size, Jupiter would be a grape and the Earth a "very small grape seed." Accused of turning science lectures into stand-up routines, he responds mildly, "This is a funny universe." An amateur in the best sense of the word, Dobson is an engaging ambassador for a life of the mind lived firmly in the real world.

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