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Scientist Obituary: John Dobson, The Wandering Stargazer

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Some scientists have PhD degrees. Others just have a need to explore. With an undergraduate degree in chemistry, John Dobson brought the art of stargazing to tens of thousands of young people.

It all started after Dobson received his chemistry degree from the University of California, Berkley. Dobson decided to join the monastery of the Vedanta Society, a Hindu-inspired order known for its intellectual rigor. The abbot there assigned Dobson to reconcile ancient Hindu scripture with modern physics.

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John Dobson

As part of that quest, Dobson developed a telescope using plywood, cardboard tubes, and glass from ship portholes. The result was the first high-powered portable telescope that amateur astronomers could build inexpensively. His telescopes have sold in the tens of thousands, and are still popular today. Despite their wide use, Dobson never sought a patent.

After 23 years, Dobson was expelled from his monastery for spending too much time outside with his telescopes. He spent his remaining years lecturing regularly on the cosmos and rolling his homemade telescopes to street corners and national parks. The Smithsonian magazine described him as a “carny barker for the cosmos.”

More on Dobson in his New York Times obituary .