TCS: Tribute to a Soul Full of Wonder on Eclipse Day 2017

Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.


For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.

— Vincent Van Gogh



Previous Solar Eclipse – photo taken in Rawalpindi, Pakistan


I like this NASA video. Toward the end, it shows the moon crossing in front of the earth — kind a of a reverse view of what people in North and Central America will see today, weather permitting.

I have our official Griffith Observatory Solarama Solar Eclipse and Sunspot Viewer on my desk, waiting for today’s Big Event. We had gone to the observatory for a different solar event the day we bought it, but total cloud cover made viewing impossible. That day would have been a complete bust but for one chance encounter.  We met John Dobson, the Sidewalk Astronomer, telescope maker extraordinaire, creator of the Dobsonian telescope; for many, The Pied Piper of Astronomy.  

A former monk — he was kicked out because he was spending too much time on his telescopes and teaching others to make their own — Dobson often set up on city sidewalks to give passersby a chance to see the glories of the universe. His Dobsonian design has made serious scopes affordable and portable for anybody willing to put in the time, patience and elbow-grease to make their own, including the endless yet delicate process of grinding a lens blank. He held workshops all over the country teaching people how to make their own telescopes, charging little more than the cost of materials. “Amateur Enthusiast” is an epic understatement, but Dobson dismissed his personal contributions to the field with self-deprecating humor.

He was baffled by my request that he autograph our Solarama, but shrugged his shoulders, and wrote on the cardboard in his neat hand

John A. Dobson
Jan 4th 1992

Manufactured Dobsonian telescope – John Dobson hand-grinding lens – Home-made Dobsonian

One of the most influential personalities in amateur astronomy in the last half of the 20th century, John Dobson almost single-handedly revolutionized backyard astronomy.

He was born in Peking (Beijing), China, on September 14, 1915. His maternal grandfather was the founder of Peking University. His mother was a musician; his father taught Zoology at the University. In 1927, his family moved to San Francisco because of the political and social unrest in China.

Dobson got a degree in chemistry from UC Berkeley, and worked in various defense-related jobs. He was a self-described “belligerent atheist” until he went a service at the Vedanta center in San Francisco. In 1944, he joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order, known for its intellectual rigor and public service. Because of his science background, he was assigned the task of reconciling the teachings of religion and science.

He built his first telescope in 1956. He got its 2″ lens in a junk store and the eyepiece from an old pair of Zeiss binoculars; through it, he saw the rings of Saturn. One of his fellow monks told him that it was possible to grind a telescope mirror, so he made his first mirror out of glass from a marine-salvage 12″ porthole. When he looked at the moon with his finished telescope, he was profoundly moved. Then he thought, “Everybody’s got to see this.”

Dobson was transferred to the Vedanta Monastery in Sacramento in 1958. The first telescope he made at Sacramento was a 5-inch reflector; the mirror came from the cut-out bottom of a discarded gallon jug. One of his friends was so amazed by what he saw through the 5-inch telescope that he told Dobson “You’ve got to make something bigger!” and donated some salvaged portholes.

There were already members of the monastery who felt telescope making and sidewalk astronomy were not appropriate uses of a monk’s time, so the portholes were smuggled into the monastery in fertilizer boxes, and Dobson screened his own sand for grinding and made his rouge out of garden supplies (ferrous sulphate and oxalic acid). The noisy job of grinding mirrors had to be done under water to deaden the sound. Since as a monk he had no money, he scrounged scrap materials to make mounts for the the mirrors. These early telescopes were built from old hose reels, lumber core cut-outs from doors, and scrap wood.

The Dobsonian telescope is a version of a Newtonian telescope, with a variation on an alt-azimuth mount. There are the fewest possible parts that will still allow it to move up and down, left and right.

He made more and larger telescopes, wanting to give as many people as possible an opportunity to see the Universe first-hand. He put discarded wagon wheels on his telescopes to wheel them around the residential neighborhood surrounding the monastery – delighting kids and adults with views of the night sky.

John Dobson in a parking lot, sharing the sun with all comers

When he started teaching his neighborhood fans how to make their own telescopes, he was AWOL so much from the monastery that the monks expelled him in 1967. He had to hitchhike to San Francisco, where he set up his telescopes on street corners. “Come see the sun!” he’d cry out to pedestrians. In 1968, he formed the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers with two of his telescope-making trainees, Bruce Sams and Jeffrey Roloff. Then he barnstormed the country, setting up his scopes in shopping centers and national parks — anyplace “where dark skies and the public collide.”

Almost 50 years later, Sidewalk Astronomers has chapters all over the U.S., and some in other countries, with over 10,000 members. Even in his 80s and 90s, Dobson was still roving from place to place, giving lectures and holding workshops. After all his years as a monk, he was used to spartan living, and sometimes slept inside one of the tubes of a larger scope. “There’s one thing nice about sleeping in a telescope,” he told the Ventura County Star in 2007. “You can’t roll out of bed.”

When we heard he had passed away on January 15, 2014, at the age of 98, we felt a personal loss for a man we met once, and spoke with for 20 minutes, because such a soul full of wonder had left us.


This composer was born today – in 1893:


Music which debuted today — in 1965:




Wishing you clear skies!

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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2 Responses to TCS: Tribute to a Soul Full of Wonder on Eclipse Day 2017

  1. Terry Welshans says:

    This event has benefited me greatly in a most unusual way. In 1968/69 I was 10,000 miles from my parent’s home in California. I was living with a bout four dozen fellows in a similar situation in a place we did not want to be. One of those guys was the maintenance guy for the two USAF forward air control aircraft based at our airport. The group of guys worked seven days a week, dawn to dusk with about half of us awake on guard duty overnight. Not much of a social life, but not boring, either.

    I emailed the fellow I mentioned above about four years ago when I found a posting he made on a bulletin board I found while searching for something entirely different than what I found as a word in his post matched my search. I emailed him and we conversed for a while, then that faded away. For an unknown reason, I revisited that same site a few days ago and found his earlier post, sparking me to reestablish communications with him.

    Turns out he is visiting his daughter in Michigan (he lives in Arizona) and they, with her children, are going to Tennessee to see the eclipse and will be staying in Lebanon, KY Sunday night. I live about 20 miles from the hotel they will be in. We exchanged phone numbers and began coordinating a meet up.

    Last night, about 8:00pm, we got the chance to meet up after 40 years. I brought along a box of photos from my collection of pictures of the area and the people we worked with. I even had a few pictures of his beloved ‘bird dogs’ at the airport. He will return home after Labor Day. On the way home, he said he would head down our way for a followup visit.

    This would not have been possible had the moon not crossed in alignment with the sun. What a special day!

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