John L. Dobson R.I.P.

At tonight’s meeting of the St. Louis Astronomical Society I learned of John Dobson’s recent death. John Dobson was widely known as the inventor of the homemade “Dobsonian” telescope and the co-founder of the Sidewalk Astronomers: perhaps the most famous and effective amateur astronomy outreach group in modern times. “Big Dob” light buckets are a staple at star parties around the world and most of them derive from John’s original designs. John lived a long life and touched many people including myself.

I briefly met John at a star party in central Texas in the late 1990’s. I cannot remember exactly where we were but it was about two hundred miles west of Fort Worth and was one of the best “dark sky” sites within easy driving distance of the Fort Worth Dallas light pollution wasteland.[1]  Amateur astronomers abhor, detest, loathe and constantly rage, rage against — street lights. When I see the sky sodomized by one ill placed security light or a hideous blinking radio tower I have to suppress Homeric, (Simpson), urges to kill. Light Pollution is an assault on one of the most beautiful things the human eye can behold, a glorious night sky, and most people are completely and utterly oblivious to it.

Because our central Texas star party was far from the maddening crowds, just the way hard-core dark sky connoisseurs  like it,  there weren’t very many people present and most in attendance where armed with state of the art telescopic gadgetry. This did not quite suit John. I remember he remarked that this was an “astronomer’s gathering.” Meaning this was a gathering for people who already knew the majesty of night sky. It was John’s passion to introduce neophytes to the that glory and judging by the accolades coming in from people who caught the astronomy bug at one of John’s sidewalk star parties it’s a passion that will outlive him.

John felt it was vitally important for people to see, with their own eyes, the craters of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, sunspots, the Andromeda galaxy and thousands of other sky wonders. He apparently never tired of watching someone look through a telescope for the first time and until tonight I must confess I didn’t really appreciate just how crucial such “first lights” are.  As I drove home I started thinking about my top astronomical experiences and soon realized they are some of my top experiences — period. Here’s my top ten “first lights” in no particular order. Only the last stands above the  others.

1. First look at the moon through a telescopeRedwash Utah, United States. When I was in grade school my parents got me a 60mm Tasco refractor. It was a simple, and surprisingly good, little telescope. I’ve talked to many amateur astronomers over the years and many fondly remember getting started with a 60mm Tasco. Shortly after I got that telescope I set it up and waited for the sky to darken. The moon was not full when it rose; I didn’t care. I lined up the scope, fiddled with the focus, and then suddenly, the moon’s craters appeared: the sharpness and clarity almost hurt. I’ve been hooked on amateur astronomy ever since. In retrospect the moon’s craters made a bigger impression on me than my first kiss. I don’t remember my first kiss, but I’ll never forget my first telescopic glimpse of the moon. John never tired of introducing strangers to the moon.

2. Seeing the crescent of Venus for the first time: Redwash Utah, United States. It took me awhile to learn how to properly focus my telescope. The moon was easy but for some reason I never got Venus dialed in until one evening when I turned the knob far enough to condense the unfocused blob of Venus into a sharp little crescent. It was mind-blowing. The seeing on the high Uintah plateau was superb. I have seldom seen Venus so steady, sharp and clear. I felt like Galileo — hell for a brief instant I was Galileo!  John loved showing off the bright planets. Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, even Mars and Mercury are all easily visible from the middle of light polluted cities.  Sidewalk Astronomers turned these ancient wanderers into modern celebrities.

3. Seeing Jupiter and its four Galilean moons: Agha Jari Iran. Shortly after getting my first refractor my family moved to Iran. I lugged my little telescope half way around the world. The telescope was my hand baggage. In those days airlines were more tolerant of large carry-ons and being a kid I enjoyed extra latitude.  After we settled in Agha Jari I set up the telescope in our front yard. I wanted to check out a bright star that was hanging about twenty degrees above the hills to the southwest. I knew that looking at stars in the 60mm was, with the exception of binaries, kind of dull. Stars appear as points of light in even the largest of telescopes. Only in modern times, by using long baseline interferometry, has it become possible to resolve details on distant stars.  Not expecting much I aimed the scope at the bright star and focused. Suddenly a new “solar system” sprang into view. I could see a tiny ball surrounded by four bright spots. For a few moments I thought I might be seeing something new. How could people have missed this? Then I realized it was Jupiter. Big J is still my favorite planet.  In John’s Big Dobs Jupiter is a super-planet. You can easily see four or more atmospheric bands, shadows of major moons and the Great Red Spot. Even better, it’s all visible from city sidewalks.

4. Catching Halley’s Comet: Edmonton Alberta Canada. Once you catch the observer’s bug it never really leaves you. It may go dormant but something always wakes it up. The return of Halley’s Comet roused my inner observer. Halley’s Comet is the most famous of all comets. It takes roughly one human lifetime for it to complete its orbit so catching Halley’s Comet is something most of us will only do once. The last time Halley’s Comet zoomed by in 1910 it put on a spectacular show. Astronomers warned that the 1986 passing would be “disappointing.” The comet was further away than it was in 1910. They were right but I was still delighted by what I saw. It was a freezing -30C Edmonton winter night when we drove to the city’s southern outskirts to see the comet. Despite the blistering cold dozens of people were parking along the road and getting out of their cars to look for the comet. I knew exactly where to look and it only took me a few seconds to find the fuzzy ball known as Halley’s Comet. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was historically satisfying. John spent a lot of time educating people about what they would see in the sky. If you understand, even the faintest of objects can thrill.

5. All sky aurora Edmonton Alberta Canada.  Amateur astronomers have mixed feelings about auroras. Amateurs that live in aurora zones, Canadians, Norwegians, Argentines and others often bitch about “natural light pollution” until they witness a full-blown all sky aurora.  It was another cold Edmonton winter night and I was up late watching the idiot box when a local news alert interrupted programming to report an impressive aurora was underway. Northern lights in Edmonton are common and seldom newsworthy. I had to see what the fuss was about so I bundled up, stepped outside and was immediately transfixed. Auroras are usually silent slithering green sheens. Tonight the sky was blazing green, then red, hinting at purple, then back to green, red again, rippling and roaring, from the north to south, east and west: all ablaze. I had never seen a display of such magnitude. Giant auroras are not only beautiful they can shut down power grids.  I love it: natural light pollution shutting down man-made light pollution. I don’t know if John saw great auroras but I know he would have loved them.

6. Comet Bennett near Canmore Alberta Canada. I wasn’t looking for Bennett’s Comet when I saw it. I was driving back to Calgary from Vancouver with friends. We made a road side stop in the Canadian Rockies near Canmore to relieve ourselves. I trudged out into the snow, unzipped my fly,  looked up and saw, just above the dark jagged outline of the mountains, the most exquisite comet. I wasn’t sure what it was. It was so striking that we stopped peeing and admired it. I remember saying, “It looks exactly like the comets you see in textbooks.” I was right.  That passing of Bennett’s Comet was canonical. I’ve seen some great comets since Bennett: Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake were both spectacular but unexpected Bennett is still my favorite. John often reminded people that you don’t always need a telescope: just keep looking up.

7. Total Eclipse of the Moon: Tamale Ghana Africa. I taught mathematics for two years in a northern Ghanaian boarding school after graduating from university. The best total lunar eclipse I have ever seen occurred during my Ghanaian years. I reckoned the eclipse would be a great teaching opportunity for my students.  The school had and old telescope; it was a small reflector that a previous teacher had donated. The scope didn’t have an eye piece so we adapted a microscope eye piece. It worked better than expected.  On the night of the eclipse we set up the scope on a second story veranda with a nice southern view. Lunar eclipses are leisurely events. It takes a long time for the Earth’s shadow to cover the moon. Before the eclipse began students started peaking at the moon through the telescope. Many of them where as delighted as I was with my first telescopic glimpse of the moon. I remember some of the older, and cooler, students had to reign in their obvious excitement. As the Earth’s shadow touched the moon people in small villages around the school started pounding drums. As the shadow crept further and further the drumming got louder and louder and bonfires started popping up all around the school.  I didn’t expect this reaction. It was the best damn star party I’ve ever attended. The eclipse was a good one too. At totality the moon was a deep dark blood-red.  John took advantage of eclipses, nature’s astronomical advertising, to show even more people the greatest show off earth.

8. Annular Solar Eclipse: Syracuse New York United States. 1994 was the year of Shoemaker–Levy 9: the fragmented comet that smashed into Jupiter with such awesome energy that it blinded sensors on large telescopes and left massive bruises that could be seen in small telescopes. Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a rare major event. We were lucky to see such an impact in our lifetimes, but the 1994 event that sticks in my head was the annular eclipse of that year. Annular eclipses are, according to eclipse snobs, failed total eclipses. The moon is too far away to precisely match the angular size the sun so at totality an annular looks like perfect super bright ring in the sky.  It’s a rare celestial event that fits into your work day but the 1994 annular eclipse did just that. Totality occurred during lunch hour and many of my coworkers and strangers on Syracuse sidewalks paused to look through eclipse shades and welding glass at the one ring to bind them all. It was Dobsonian sidewalk astronomy at its finest.

9. Glimpsing the Gegenschein: Grand Teton National Park, United States.  Seeing the gegenschein requires very dark and clear skies. The tiniest hint of light pollution will wash it out. I’d been observing for years before I saw it. I was south of Yellowstone Park looking directly north. There are no large cities directly north of Yellowstone for hundreds of miles and the park is blissfully black. At 3:00am I noticed a slight glowing that steady increased in brightness. Seeing was superb. I could see 7th magnitude stars with averted naked eye vision. I was alone, in the cold, in the dark. Not John’s style but this was a personal first. Sometimes the sky is all you need.

10. Total Solar Eclipse: Zambia Africa. Total solar eclipses are beyond awesome. They utterly wowed our ancient ancestors and still blow away the most jaded and media saturated people today. You have to put yourself in the moon’s shadow and give yourself to the spectacle. It’s worth spending thousands of dollars and going to the ends of the Earth to stand in the moon’s shadow. Of all the wonderful and spectacular things I have seen I’d rate my first total solar eclipse above them all. Of all the planets, moons and other bodies in our solar system only the Earth enjoys pure total solar eclipses. By some freak cosmic accident the moon and sun are almost exactly the same angular size in our sky. It’s only when I’m standing in the moon’s shadow, during a total solar eclipse that I don’t mind being trapped on Earth.

Looking over my list it’s pretty clear that John Dobson had the right idea. The things that stuck were first glances through telescopes and watching special things in the sky with my own eyes. I have spent many long nights tracking objects down in telescopes but after a few years such “serious” sessions blend together. It’s those fleeting first lights that dig in and change how you feel. John Dobson changed how many people feel about the sky. Nice work John.

[1] The best dark sky sites in Texas are in the Davis Mountains near the McDonald Observatory. The Texas Star Party is held nearby every year.