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Photograph courtesy of the Space Telescope Science Institute

Eye in the Sky: The Helix Nebula is just one of the deep-space wonders that John Dobson has made available to street-corner astronomers.

Space Man

'A Sidewalk Astronomer' chronicles the pleasures of a life spent looking up and out

By Richard von Busack

I HAD forgotten how, one night sometime in the late 1980s, I stumbled across a street-corner skywatcher. He flagged down strangers, urging them to have a free look through his 10-inch telescope so that they might observe a dinner-plate-sized image of the full moon. A Sidewalk Astronomer profiles this man, the 89-year-old John Dobson. The slender, white-haired scientist manifests his religious calling in the most benign way possible—by hanging out at corners like Ninth and Irving or 24th and Noe, urging passersby to have a look away from the world and into the universe.

The half-British, half-Irish Dobson is the namesake for the Dobsonian telescope mount, a clamp that allows telescopes to be swiveled and held. Seen here, one scientist mentions Dobson in the same breath as Isaac Newton for having created such a breakthrough. Dobson is more modest: "It's the simplest way of aiming above the horizon, and I don't know why they blame me for it—it's like inventing the cup or the spoon."

Dobson's mount allows legions of amateur astronomers to build their own telescopes. During his travels, he supervises a lens-grinding class at the Randall Junior Museum. He also hangs out in a rainy Vermont field, at the Stellafane gathering of amateur astronomers, where hobbyists set up their home-built apparatus. Some are as simple as $7 cardboard tubes. Some are hand-tooled wooden objects of art.

A former Vedanta monk, Dobson left the order to proselytize for the biggest picture—the 50 million light years of the known universe. What he does could be described as outreach at its most outward-reaching. Before he became a monk, Dobson was "a belligerent atheist" whose years of disbelief were ended by his friend, Santa Cruz's late musical genius Lou Harrison. Today, Dobson sees what people call God as the force behind the visible universe. He understands the divine in terms of the Unchanging or the Infinite. Mostly, he just refers to his God as "the Exterior Decorator."

Jeffrey Jacobs' loose, brief and captivating documentary captures the table talk of the man, watches him as he shows off a lariat trick and little harmonium playing. Jacobs records his aphorisms ("If God made this world for our use, the fish would be boneless") and his pseudo-important warnings: "Don't ... go ... to Venus! It rains sulfuric acid!" Dobson describes celestial distance in ordinary terms, placing the state of Oregon in the moon's Copernicus crater and in the caldera of Mars' largest volcano. Or: "If the sun were the size of a basketball, Jupiter would be the size of a grape, and Earth would be the size of a grape seed."

Like all holy men, sages, teachers and jokesters—and Dobson is certainly all these things—he has moments of despair when faced with the task of wising up the human race. He recalls meeting one optimist who got angry when Dobson tried to show her sunspots: "The sun doesn't have spots! Don't be so negative!" Still, Dobson's kind spirit and quick wit radiate from this movie, which is far superior to What the Bleep Do We Know? Dobson's enthusiasm and wild personal story are a joy to watch.

A Sidewalk Astronomer (Unrated; 78 min.), a documentary by Jeffrey Jacobs, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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