The “Guerilla Astronomer”
I met John Dobson for the first time at a star party more than two decades ago. He was busily showing people how to hand polish mirrors for their own telescopes. One little girl in particular was meticulously hand grinding and polishing, more or less oblivious to everything and everybody around her. John watched her for a while, bent over and gently whispered something in her ear, and she rewarded him with the most beautiful smile and a big “Thanks!”
That was the way John was—encouraging when he saw someone throw their heart and soul into a telescope project. He could also be quite abrupt and brusque when faced with people who weren’t taking it seriously. John spent a lot of time stargazing and teaching people to build telescopes.
I ran into him a few more times over the years. The most memorable time was at a star party where (as an editor at Sky & Telescope) I was one of the guest speakers. As luck would have it, John’s talk was right before mine. John was a tough act to follow. I sat in the audience, listening to every word he shared. He started out with skygazing, and soon we were out among the galaxies, learning about the origin and evolution of the universe. He had everyone, including a row of little kids in the front, in the palm of his hand. Towards the end of his talk, as he got into his own views on cosmology, John’s language got a little salty. A LOT salty. And, the eyes of the kids in the front row just got bigger and bigger as he muttered a few terms that most adults don’t use around kids. They REALLY liked him after that!
He ended his talk, took a bunch of questions, and then it was my turn. I don’t even remember what I talked about that night, so I don’t know if the audience did either. The next day, he was out with the kids, showing them how to grind mirrors and use their telescopes. That, too, was John. I learned something from him every time I heard him talk. He had an amazing outlook on life, and loved astronomy.
The news that John Dobson died on January 15, 2014, a year or so short of his 100th birthday, flashed across my screen late that day. And, when I read that he’d peacefully passed, I sat and remembered the times I’d met the man who taught us all how to build easy-to-make telescopes that now bear his name: Dobsonians. You can read more about John’s remarkable life here and here.
Rest in Peace, Brother John. And enjoy exploring those stars. You’ve earned them!