Dark Nights, Cosmology and Bryce Canyon

RUBY’S INN, Garfield County – As scores attending a national astronomy convention waited for the next talk, a man in the audience mentioned to his next-chair neighbor that among his telescopes is a “ten-inch Dob.” That was a nice coincidence, as the next talk was by an almost 96-year-old Dob – none other than John Dobson himself.

[John Dobson addresses the convention via videotaped comments. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Besides inventing the Dobsonian, the world’s most popular type of inexpensive telescope mount, Dobson is famous for his unorthodox cosmology. As the former Hindu monk put it in his taped presentation Thursday afternoon at the Astronomical League’s 2011 national convention here, he is “against the Big Bang model” of the universe’s creation that is accepted dogma for most astronomers and cosmologists.
“The Big Bang model takes nonexistence for granted and gets the universe out of nothing,” he said.
The taped presentation was filmed in California, where Dobson is recuperating from what his organization, the Sidewalk Astronomers, terms “a slight stroke” that occurred in March 2008. ALCON, the convention organization, solicited questions from attendees, and forwarded 50 to Dobson. He chose questions he wanted to answer, the interview was filmed, and it debuted to a nearly full conference room at Rubys Inn.
The convention, which continues through Sunday, features talks and astronomy vendor displays for attendees and free public star parties for any visitor to the adjacent Bryce Canyon National Park. ALCON is presented by the Astronomical League (the AL in ALCON) and the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. The league is made up of many local astronomy groups.

[Randy Thompson, Kansas City, helps at a League table in the conference’s vendors room. Photo by Cory Bauman]

As Lowell Lyon, the Utah amateur astronomer who is the convention’s co-chair, expressed it, the group edited out Dobson’s replies that amounted to, “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Dobson was born in 1915 in Beijing, China, where his father taught chemistry at what was then Peiking University, according to Sidewalks Astronomers; his grandfather on his mother’s side founded the university. In 1927 the family moved to San Francisco; in 1943 Dobson graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked in defense contract jobs during World War II and joined the order of Ramakrishna monks in 1944. He lived in a monastery for the next 23 years.
Meanwhile, he experimented with building inexpensive telescopes and invented the Newtonian scope cradle that carries his name. He left a monastery in Sacramento in 1967 because he refused to stop helping people make telescopes. He continued reaching out to the public, becoming a cofounder of Sidewalk Astronomers.
“What I’m particularly interested in is why we see a universe,” said Dobson, whose white hair was tied in the back in a short ponytail. He believes in a universe but not in space and time. “Seeing it in space and time must be a mistake,” he said.
Instead, he believes in three forces: gravity, electricity and inertia. Asked if he has a name for the theory, he said, “No, I don’t have a name for it. … It’s almost too simple to need a name.”
Then, laughing, he suggested naming it, “The mistake model. The universe is by mistake. No, I don’t have” a name for the theory.
Inventing the Dobsonian and making these telescopes are aspects of his driving purpose, to open the eyes of the public to the wonders of the universe. Asked what he thinks of the telescope model’s name, he said, “I think it’s funny.”
But he does not mind a telescope type named for him, the way the Newtonian telescope is named for its inventor, Sir Isaac Newton. “We were sidewalk astronomers,” showing the public what’s out there. “We were sidewalk astronomers. It’s not harmful for people who are doing public service to be well known.”
The most that one of his telescopes cost him was $300, spent on a 24-inch diameter Dobsonian. The mirror was made from a piece of glass 24 1/2 inches across, surplus glass that had been used in a ship’s portal. After the glass was ground into the mirror’s concave shape, the largest portion of the expense went into having the glass aluminized so that it would reflect. Heavy cardboard tubes glued together made up the telescope’s body, and he used wood from junked doors to make the rockers that hold his mirrors.
The glass’ “figure,” the curvature to which it is ground, has to be accurate to within a tiny fraction of an inch. Hard work by the telescope-maker can grind it to that tolerance. “Getting it aluminized in a vacuum chamber, that cost money,” Dobson added.
How do you get teenagers involved in astronomy? “Oh, let them look through a telescope,” he said. “For the most part, people don’t know what’s out there.”
He told the story of a little girl from the inner city who went to a dark site and was frightened by the night sky. She knew how many stars were supposed to be out there: six, the number she could see from her light-polluted home.
He told about a woman looking at the planet Venus through a telescope. Venus, between the sun and Earth, shows phases depending on the angle of sunlight that reflects to the Earth. The woman insisted she had been looking at the moon because the target was a crescent. The moon was not visible that night. Dobson tried to convince her she had been looking at Venus, but she exclaimed, “Don’t tell me what I saw!” and stormed off.
Dobson praised the convention, with its four nights of public star parties and scores of telescopes. “Keep doing what you’re doing at Bryce Canyon,” he said.
“These public star parties are the cat’s meow.”

[Kevin Poe, the famous “dark ranger” at Bryce Canyon National Park, briefs volunteers who will use telescopes to show the night sky to visitors. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Lyon said more than 300 are attending the convention. A map on a wall of the vendor’s room – which some marked to show their home locations – had measles. Red dots were scattered on Wisconsin, Maryland, Illinois, Florida, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Indiana, New York and elsewhere.
A large contingent is here from northern Utah, including SLAS’ Dave Bernson, whose talk about mythology and constellations was acclaimed a hit. (Nightly News has to rely on reports of others for that, as the writer did not arrive in time to hear it personally. But Berson’s expertise and speaking style were described in tones of astonishment.)
“All in all, I’m very happy,” Lyon said of the convention. “For a first effort in a national park for something like this, I think it’s going quite well.” He’s pleased with the speakers, he said.
Many park visitors are surprised at the public star party because they have “never seen skies so dark,” he said. The Bryce Canyon darkness allows nearly all visitors to enjoy more stars and more detail in the Milky Way and other astronomical objects, than at home.

[The scenery at Bryce Canyon National Park, and its dark skies, were delighted visitors. Photo by Cory Bauman]
Rodger Fry, president of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, gave a fascinating talk comparing the geology of Earth and Mars. He spoke during the time that the group had planned to remotely operate a large telescope in Australia. The telescope’s dome remained closed because of high humidity.
Fry added that attendees are “thrilled with the speakers and topics, and the sightseeing and dark sky conditions.”

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