The wonder of the stars

Published: Saturday 15 April 2006

A Sidewalk Astronomer A film about astronomy, cosmology and John Dobson directed by Jeffrey Fox Jacobs

Here, come see sun spots," John Dobson implores passers-by on the streets of San Francisco as he asks them to peer into his hand-painted sky blue telescope in one of the frames of this film under review. Dobson is the inventor of the famous Dobsonian mount, which revolutionised astronomy by making powerful telescopes available to stargazers. This film about this inventor, often described as the John Appleseed of astronomy, shares its subject's passion.

A hero to countless amateur astronomers worldwide, the 90-year-old Dobson philosophises over astronomy in the film's voice-over as we see captivating images of the planets, stars and galaxies he describes. His intellectual curiosity goes far back far. In 1943, Dobson joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco, where he studied links between religion and science. "To see what the universe was all about, he polished porthole glass from an old navy ship into a mirror and made his first telescope in 1956. When he peered through it, the revelation would change his life.

Dobson continued to make telescopes that were large but cheap, made of scrap wood and cardboard tubing. What came to be known as the Dobsonian telescope could be easily pointed in any direction. He would sneak out of the Vedanta monastery to show people the night sky, but the monastery did not take too kindly to his excursions, and asked him to leave. In 1968, Dobson co-founded the group that would make public-service astronomy his life's mission: the Sidewalk Astronomers. Today, the group has chapters in the us, Russia and the uk.

The documentary is a moving portrait of this inspiring inventor. It's also a light-hearted but instructive look at astronomy, from a director who himself is an avid stargazer. It sees Dobson taking up cudgels against anti-Darwinists with his usual wit. But the most acerbic of his jibes are reserved for the Big Bang theory. "You try to persuade some little kid that something came out of nothing. That's no way. He has to graduate from high school before he can possibly be stupid enough to think like that.

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