Thursday, January 16, 2014

In memory of John Dobson

Mr John Lowry Dobson, my hero in amateur astronomy, passed away yesterday at the age of 98.

Here's the announcement from The Sidewalk Astronomers:

"It is with heavy hearts that we must report the passing of John Dobson. He died peacefully this morning, Wednesday, January 15th, in Burbank, California. He was 98 years old. He leaves behind a son, numerous close friends, and fans and admirers worldwide.

On March 8th, in honor of John, this year's ISAN (International Sidewalk Astronomy Night) will be dedicated to his memory. Amateur astronomers around the globe can join in and celebrate John's life and continue to carry the torch that he lit back in 1968 when he co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers."

Who is John Dobson?

In short, one of the greatest promoter of amateur astronomy of our time. He invented a cost-effective way to mount big mirror-based telescope, i.e. the dobsonian mount. You can read up more about him from this wikipedia entry.

You may also search "John Dobson" in YouTube to experience the passion, charisma, humour and humility of this wondeful man.

For now, I will like to share how this great man has influenced me.

Can't remember the exact details but a few years ago during the mid 2000, I watched the documentary A Sidewalk Astronomer. This is a clip of the opening scene from Bullfrog Films on YouTube:

"Come see the Moon! Come see the Moon!" Within a few minutes of watching it, I was hooked. Something just clicked deep inside me. Felt so inspired and I told myself, someday, I must and will do this sidewalk thing! Just like the lady in video clip said, "Wow, I needed this right now!".

When I first watched this documentary, I have seen Moon and a couple of planets through some small to mid-size telescopes. Feeling inspired to do sidewalk astronomy, I wanted to buy a dobsonian telescope as featured in the documentary so that I can share this excitement with the general public. But to my huge surprise, the local pricing of small beginner telescopes were too high for me (and I believe for a lot of others too!), let alone a dobsonian!

To make things worse, real life was getting in the way. I had to place even more emphasis on my family, career and personal life. Gradually, stargazing took a backseat and was totally forgotten for a few years.

Fast forward to 2010, on a casual trip to Johor (West Malaysia) to visit my friend's hometown, I was absolutely stunned by the starry night sky that night! WOW! I suddenly remembered I was into amateur astronomy a few years ago. Fortunately, I was in a slightly better financial situation and thanks to the tremendous growth of internet, more competition and mass production in China, prices of astronomical equipment has dropped quite significantly.

Long story short, I bought my first telescope which was a used one from a local amateur astronomer thanks to the local singastro astronomy forum. It is a 5-inch diameter Maksutov Cassegrain Telescope. What immense joy it is to finally own a telescope and to be able to share those views with your family, friends and the general public! One very clear night, or rather clear early morning, I saw the amazing third quarter Moon. And that's when John Dobson came back into my consciousness as I remembered that was the same view that inspired him to spread the joy of astronomy.

Within a couple of months of owning my first telescope, with some research on a suitable location,  I gathered enough courage to do my first solo sidewalk astronomy session at the open grounds outside Toa Payoh Public Library. As expected, plenty of dirty looks from passerby. But for those who bothered to take a look, they had a great view of Venus (and Jupiter I think). And we had a nice sharing sessions about astronomy and the good old days in Singapore when our Milky Way galaxy was still visible. Before I knew it, I had done sidewalk astronomy for many hours till way past midnight.

The courage to do my first few sidewalks is from my constant reminder of the inspiration from the documentary A Sidewalk Astronomer. Through sidewalk astronomy, I have made many wonderful like-minded friends and together we had so much fun spreading stargazing awareness in Singapore over the past 3 years.

Then there are some friends who doubt sidewalk astronomy is a good idea in Singapore, i.e. the critics and naysayers. Will you be arrested by the police? Will you be robbed? Aren't you afraid of the public dirtying your telescope and optics? How long can you do this? Shouldn't you be more practical and spend more time earning more money? Will the public find it super boring to look at the Moon through a telescope? Surely they must have seen it many times by now?

Again, I drew strength and courage from John Dobson's words and action in the documentary. "Come see the Moon! Come see the Moon!". John did not give up when passer-by walked past and ignored him. For those who are keen to try sidewalk but are fearful or sensitive to public rejection and ridicule, let me quote one of the most inspiring thing John Dobson said in the documentary:

"Those people DO NOT reject us (sidewalk astronomers) for what we are, they reject us for what they SUSPECT that we are. And that is an entirely different thing!"

Three years later, we still have plenty of people queuing up behind our telescope during our sidewalks even if only the Moon was visible. Most of them *still* have not seen Moon through a telescope in their lifetime and those who did, wanted to see it again during its different phases and to relive the wonder that is live stargazing.

Just wanted to say something about the humility of this great man. Most telescope designers and inventors labelled their invention with their own name. John Dobson was not interested to do that. In fact, he kind of hated people calling his invention a Dobsonian. Dobsonian is just amateur astronomers way of crediting and thanking him for his invention which allows large telescopes to be assembled at fraction of the cost to a similarly-sized telescope of other designs. Look at the thousands of dobsonian telescopes sold commercially for the past few decades, John did not bothered to patent his design and get rich from collecting royalties. He truly wanted more (if possible, all) people to see the Universe through an affordable telescope. He lived a frugal life till his very last day yesterday.

So for those of you who have enjoyed looking through our telescopes, John Dobson is THE MAN to thank and be grateful for. Without him, I may still be hiding in some dark corner somewhere in Singapore, enjoying stargazing and hoping no passerby will come and "disturb" me!

Thanks to the support from my friends, one of the biggest highlight of 2013 for me is to finally co-own my very first 10-inch dobsonian telescope bought used from another good friend! This was after looking through some of my friend's bigger dobsonian telescopes at the starry nights in Johor (thanks for the "poison" guys!). After owning and using a few smaller telescopes of various designs for a couple of years, using a bigger dobsonian telescope is such a thrill. It is like falling in love with stargazing all over again!

As a promoter of stargazing, I do NOT recommend beginners to buy a big dobsonian telescope as their first telescope. Like all telescope design, a dobsonian will have its fair share of pros and cons. But if you are mainly into visual astronomy and can live with the disadvantages of owning one, you will always fall in love with a dobsonian telescope someday! :)

Dear John Dobson, it is a pity I will not be able to meet you this lifetime. But I still love you very much and may you rest in peace forever in the Universe you loved so much and dedicated your life to sharing it with the rest of the world!

Weather permitting, in memory of John Dobson, I will conduct a sidewalk astronomy session tonight from 8pm at the open grounds outside Toa Payoh Public Library. No points for guessing which telescope I will be bringing along! :) Jupiter is still very close to Earth for an amazing close-up view of its cloud bands, the great storm circle and its moons. And today is also Full Moon so COME SEE THE MOON!

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