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Environment & Science

97-year-old monk's invention still helps amateur astronomers see the stars

John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved "24 incher," a telescope he toured around the country with for over 80,000 miles.
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
Bob Alborzian, head of the Burbank chapter of the Sidewalk Astronomers, with the first Dobsonian telescope he ever built (back in 1968).
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
A hand ground Dobsonian mirror. Often they're made out of port hole glass from ships or pyrex.
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
Ilena Rivera hand grinds her telescope mirror, an archaic process dating back to the 16th century.
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
Dobsonian telescope students grinding mirrors in 90 degree heat.
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
Testing to figure out the focal length of the telescope.
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
Telescope inventor John Dobson at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood, where he lives as a monk.
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
People often try to get Dobson's autograph on their telescopes.
Jennifer Sharpe
John Dobson holds up a photo of his beloved
Bob Alborzian says the shower caps -- to keep dust out -- are his addition to the Dobsonian design.
Jennifer Sharpe

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Forty minutes north of Los Angeles, along a dark mountain highway lies the “Valley of the Dobs,” A gathering of amateur astronomers who’ve built their own Dobsonian telescopes.

A species of telescope invented by a hippie monk named John Dobson, who jerry-rigged materials lying around his San Francisco monastery: A piece of ship porthole glass, some sand to grind it with, a cardboard tube fished out of a dumpster, to name a few. For about $100 in materials, you can make something that would otherwise cost you thousands.

Tim Elliott demonstrates its signature innovation, the Dobsonian’s swiveling base.

"Between these bases, there’s a long-play album...This one’s Tchaikovsky. And there’s three pieces of teflon that slide and make it swivel. We can’t make them without the old records," said Elliot.

This cult to the Dobsonian was spawned after Dobson got kicked out of his monastery for truancy. After perfecting his telescope, he couldn’t help sneaking out to share it with his neighborhood, which is an impulse that seems to possess everyone who’s made one since.

It's A Way Of Life

Retired astrophysicist, Bob Alborzian, has been out on the streets with his Dobsonian ever since he first built it in the late '60s. Plastered with magazine cut outs of the The Who, Les Paul, Bob Dylan and John F. Kennedy, he sees it as the perfect weapon against the ills of modern society.

"I try to preach to them that these objects you see live for billions and billions of years," said Alborzian. "We’re here now, gone now, not even a wink of an eye. Problem is, a lot of people take the universe and the nature for granted."

Alborzian heads up the Burbank chapter of the Sidewalk Astronomers. A group of guerilla street astronomers who commandeer a grassy strip of Chandler Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley every quarter moon.

On Sundays, Alborzian’s garage door opens to the public as he and his fellow Sidewalk Astronomers host free workshops, passing down their craft just as it was taught to them by the master.

Making A Dobson Is No Easy Feat

For what you save in money, you have to make up for in human power.

Hand grinding your own telescope mirror takes upper body strength and patience. It’s an archaic process that can take months if not years. It’s how Galileo would have made his telescope.

Public library employee Ilena Rivera is hunched over a work bench in 90-degree heat grinding coarse grit into what looks like a cake-sized hockey puck made out of glass. After years of watching the Sidewalk Astronomers set up in front of her library, she’s finally committed to making one herself.

"In the income I work in, it’s mostly minority and lower income. So sometimes you realize that a person looking through a telescope, it’s really their first time to ever look through a telescope, and I’ve seen people tear up and say that they never thought that they could see the moon and see it as beautiful as that. I can’t even imagine," said Rivera.

This is what it must have been like when Dobson first took his telescope out onto the streets of San Francisco in 1968. On clear nights, he and the original crew of Sidewalk Astronomers were out on the corner of Jackson and Broderick, blowing people’s minds. Up until then, the public had only been able to get their hands on the kinds of telescopes you’d order out of comic books.

A Lasting Legacy

Verging on his 97th birthday, John Dobson is still living as a monk at the Vedanta Society monastery behind a bulb shaped dome edged up against the Hollywood freeway. Not a bad place to go foraging for telescope parts.

"Do you know what those tubes are made for? For pouring concrete columns," said Dobson. "So if you want to make a telescope come to California. We got 'em lying around loose. Lying around loose!"

Despite having had a stroke a couple of years ago, Dobson runs three laps to the parking lot every morning with the same determination to stay alive he must have had building his first telescope.

"I wanted to have a telescope, but I didn’t have any way to have a telescope. One of the brothers in the monastery told me, you can grind your own glass. I said you’re nuts!" said Dobson. "That was shocking to me, that you could do it yourself. As soon as I knew you could grind your own glass, nothing would have stopped me. It just struck me that this thing is possible. Let’s do it."

Up until his mid-nineties, Dobson had been living a nomadic life, traveling the country teaching workshops and sleeping on people’s floors. After all these years out on the streets with the public, helping them understand “where they hell they are,” as he puts it, had he noticed any changes?

"It looks to me as though the state of knowledge of the American public has not gone very high since I first made telescopes," said Dobson. "And I don’t think the American public is very sure that Italy is not a state of the United States."

Pulled by some gravitational force, Bob Alborzian continues to draw strangers into his Dobsonian orbit. He's not alone, either. Through sheer osmosis, the Sidewalk Astronomers have grown to over 3,000 members worldwide.

If you happen to look up from your cell phone, you might catch a glimpse of one.

"They may be living among us. You never know. Possibility for everything exists." said Alborzian.