A Sidewalk Astronomer begins with an evening of observing the first quarter moon from the corner of 24th and Noe in San Francisco. John Dobson, one of the founders of Sidewalk Astronomy, is showing anyone who wants to look the moon through a high-powered telescope. The public is astonished by what they see. John keeps up a running commentary as people look through the telescope.
“Come see the moon.”
“That is the way the moon would look one hour before you landed on it.”
“As I always say, the exterior decorator does lovely work.”
“That crater you are looking at is as big as Texas.”
“The Sea of Tranquility is as big as Oregon.”
“There is nothing on the moon that is not a crater.”
“Of course, you can look again. This isn’t like ice cream. You can have as many servings as you like.”
The universe is mostly hydrogen and ignorance.
John explains that, “one reason we do this is so people can see beyond their genetic programming.”
John is at the Stellafane Amateur Telescope Makers Convention in August of 2003. It is Saturday night at the “main talks.” David H. Levy, discoverer of 21 comets and a leader of the amateur astronomer community, thanks John for the “incredible contribution that John Dobson has made. He stands right next to Newton in his role in creating a telescope…” John tells a story about one of his hosts who said, “There are Newtonian telescope and there are Dobsonian telescopes. I thought Dobson died a long time ago.”
Amateur astronomers testify to John’s importance in creating an inexpensive, flexible and lightweight telescope mount that opened up a scale of astronomy that hadn’t been available before. People were able to build large aperture telescopes that they never thought would be possible. John makes it clear that he wasn’t trying to start a revolution. John says, “We just wanted to see what was going on out there.”
At Booth Park in Fairfield, Connecticut, John is conducting one of his many slide shows on astronomy for the public. “This is the crater Copernicus, and you have to ask yourself what happens when you have an asteroid coming in so hard that it leaves a hole big enough to put Los Angeles in the hole.” Following John’s slides of the moon is actual time lapse footage shot from the Galileo spacecraft 3 million miles from Earth on its way to Jupiter. It shows the first quarter moon moving around our planet over a period of 12 hours.
Dobson describes the thousand-mile-long rays made of glass beads that radiate out of the crater Tycho. “How do you know that they are made of glass beads,” a student once asked him. He said, “When the astronauts went there, they brought that stuff back.” “Someone went there?” she asked. She asked him twice.
There is a montage of moon footage showing orbiting, landing, walking and driving the lunar rover on the surface and finally ascent, shot by the crews of Apollo 8, 10, 15, 16 and 17.
John tells his joke about Adam asking God why he made Eve so attractive. “So you’d like her.” “Well, how come you made her so stupid?” Adam asked God. “So she’d like you.” John also tells a joke about scientists who think they can create life. God is curious, so they take him down to the lab. The scientist says, “First, you take some dirt.” God says, “Get your own dirt.”
John describes why he became an atheist and how he became interested in joining a Vedanta monastery. While a monk, he became fascinated with what you can see through a telescope. As a monk, he took a vow of poverty, so he improvised and learned how to make telescopes out of marine salvaged glass porthole windows, cardboard tubes and scrap wood. After sharing his telescopes with neighbors of the monastery, he started teaching them how to make their own. He still teaches telescope-making classes like the one at the Randall Museum in San Francisco where students are just beginning to polish their glass for making mirrors.
He was asked to leave the monastery in 1967 having been reported AWOL one too many times. In 1968, he and two young telescope enthusiasts founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.
An amateur astronomer from Hong Kong has come to Stellafane and is talking about his sidewalk astronomy experiences with John. John explains he was born in Beijing. “If there were a million people with telescopes willing to get them out for the public there would be a chance for the people born on this world to see where the hell they are.”
“Back in the 60s the telescopes were too small to show galaxies… if you let them see through a 10-incher they go bananas… they can’t believe that the exterior decorator hung something like Saturn out there.”
Saturn stills from the ground and from space are shown, followed by actual Saturn footage and JPL animation. Then comes Jupiter with its Great Red Spot. “Jupiter is big enough to put 1,300 earths inside and spins around in less than 10 hours.”
“Don’t go to Venus. It rains sulfuric acid.”
“This is the Grand Canyon on Mars, and it would fit all the way across Australia, or all the way across the United States.”
“This is the big volcano on Mars and it’s big enough to cover the whole state of Oregon. The lava pit on top is bigger than San Francisco Bay with all the surrounding towns thrown in.”
The sun sequence begins with close-up photography of the whole spinning sun, photographed through a variety of filters. “If the sun were the size of a basketball, Jupiter would be the size of a grape, and the Earth would be the size of a very small grape seed.”
“There is room inside the sun for the moon to orbit the earth with a quarter of a million miles left to spare outside the moon’s orbit.”
John shows and discusses sunspots and flairs and the history of the sun. “If the sun didn’t have a governor on it so it stayed at the same temperature, English would never have arisen on this stupid planet.”
The death of stars is shown in a montage of planetary nebula including the Ring, Dumbbell, Eskimo, Butterfly, Helix, and Veil nebulas. “This is the kind of stuff out of which the earth and our bodies are made. If you give this cloud another 10 billion years, it will go to school and chew gum.”
John stands on Haight Street with a sun telescope that he made, showing sunspots to passersby. “The sun is big enough to put 1,300,000 earths inside.”
In Golden Gate park, he tells people who have stopped to look through the sun scope “You see that very dark spot? That’s as big as the Earth in case you have any delusions of grandeur.”
“Most of the public is not interested in the nature of the real world… they are not concerned with how the universe runs.br> “When you find out there is information connected with this thing then, oh my god, look there’s all this other information. But if you don’t look at all, you don’t notice. Once you come to the conclusion that what you know already is all you need to know, then you have a degree in disinterest.”
“People have no idea what’s going on in this universe.”
John sits at his kitchen table in his modest San Francisco apartment folding Sidewalk Astronomer leaflets.
“Why should anybody stop to show them the Sun? Don’t you see how ridiculous it is? Who would do that?”
He tells a story of a young neighbor who always saw him on the corner with his telescope and thought he was a “dirty old man.” After the young woman learned about John’s background, she told him he was now her “favorite dirty old man.”
At one of his lectures, Dobson explains to the audience the derivation of the word “galaxy” from the Greek word “galaxi” which means “milky way.”
“The number of stars in our galaxy is equal to the number of grains of wheat three feet deep over an eight acre farm… and the Andromeda galaxy is twice that big.”
A montage of galaxy images follows and includes the Andromeda galaxy (M31), the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), a spiral galaxy (NGC253), the Sombrero galaxy (M104), and finally, an image of the Milky Way gathered by the Two Micron All-Sky Survey. He is asked to name his favorite galaxy. “I suppose our own, but if you mean outside, I’m very fond of NGC4565… if you see it in very dark skies with a good sized telescope… the dust lanes are so conspicuous.”
After seeing the Hubble Deep-Sky Survey photo, John says, “You know the Hubble telescope took a picture of a section of the sky where they couldn’t see anything. There are all these thousands of galaxies in there. It’s a piece of sky that’s as big as a grain of sand held at arm’s length. The universe is a lot bigger than the earth and it’s a lot bigger than the solar system and it’s a lot bigger than our galaxy and we owe it to ourselves to notice it.”
Asked by a student the age of the universe, he discusses red shift and the Big Bang theory, making it clear that he believes the theory to be wrong. “There are too many problems. Getting everything out of nothing, that’s the worst problem.”
He explains several objections to the Big Bang theory.
“We used to change the model to match the physics. That is not what they’re doing now. They’re changing the physics to match the model.”
After de-bunking the Big Bang, he feels obligated to replace it, and describes in detail his recycling model of the universe. “If the stuff recycles from the border, we don’t have to have a beginning. It could be going on like this all the time.”
There is a short montage of waves coming in and going out at a beach.
“It’s alive. The whole universe is alive. The defining characteristics of a living organism is that it directs a stream of negative entropy upon itself and, damn it all the universe does the same thing.”
He explains his view that matter is sentient, smart, knowing. He claims the only reason we as a species are sentient is because the matter from which we are made is sentient.
A montage of deep-space dissolves into sparks at a campfire and a discussion of energy. “We simply do not see what’s going on here at all… what we see as matter is energy… there’s only one thing here.”
A discussion of the speed of light follows, in which he explains that it is not a speed, but the ratio of space to time.
A discussion of time and space begins with Dobson saying, “The universe is like a television show. We all came in in the middle and no one is staying for the end.” He continues that the universe is, “a little bit like a theatrical performance. If you go to a theatrical performance, there are several things you want to know. Who are the actors? Hydrogen and helium. What is the name of the play? Falling. Where is the theater? In space. When should you go? In time.”
He shares with his students a humorous definition of time as “nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once… and space is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening in the same place.”
He describes the geometry of relativity, whereby space and time is a pair of opposites, and when one is subtracted from the other, the remainder is zero. “That puts a very different look on this universe. The notion that the universe is out there inde-goddamn-pendent of us observers is based on the fact that we see things ‘out there.’ And it turns out that the evidence that we have for it’s being ‘out there’ is all wrong.”
He reminds his students to always stay curious, wonder, and ask questions. A student asks about the depletion of the ozone layer. Actual film footage of the whole earth spinning shot from an outgoing spacecraft is seen as he reminds his audience that all habitats are temporary. “There are no permanent habitats in this universe.” The earth appears filmed from the shuttle.
Another student asks, “Is there more beyond [the visible universe] that you can’t see?” John explains the Vedantan view first proposed over 4000 years ago. Their word for the universe was “the changing.” “If the universe is ‘the changing,’ damn it all, there has to be something against which it’s changing.” He continues with the Vedantan explanation. “If you ask what is beyond the observable universe, it has to be the changeless, the infinite, and the undivided. We think there’s a big empty space out there. That’s entirely guesswork.”
John wants to bring physicists closer to a Vedantan perspective, and wants to bring Vedantans back to physics. “There is only one thing here.”
John demonstrates his prowess at rope twirling.
John is showing people the moon through his telescope at Ninth and Irving in San Francisco. Two young people, who have heard of him from their astronomy professor, recognize him. Another woman asks, “Why are you here?” To which he replies, “Well, who else will?”
At his home, John accompanies himself on the harmonium as he sings a hymn. “Thou has lifted all of my sorrows with the vision of thy face/ And the magic of thy beauty has bewitched my mind.”