A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
The Sidewalk Astronomers
“Come see the Moon! Come see the moon,” Dobson cries as he hands out flyers on the observatory lawn. With his long white hair and theatrical manner, he could be an old carny or a doomsday pamphleteer…
BY AL RIDENOUR
It’s May 5, and the planets are in cataclysmic alignment. People are heading for the hills overhanging Hollywood’s nocturnal glitter. The road to Griffith Observatory is jammed. Telescope tripods unfold like swarms of landing insects. Lens caps pop off like champagne corks, and all observers crane toward that calamitous convergence of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and the Moon. Thus far, it’s failed to come through on any of the tidal waves or earthquakes predicted by astrologers, but at least it’s unleashed waves of hype. A local news van pulls up to blast light over the lawn, blinding everyone in sight. Those glued to the telescopes curse. The observatory PA booms, “Cosmic Catastrophe begins in 15 minutes” — an alarmist announcement for the planetarium show bearing the catastrophic name.
At the center ring of this circus, a few guys are setting up what appears to be a crazy cardboard cannon targeted at the celestial menace. A small wiry figure standing next to the oversized contraption and plucking an eyepiece from a pouch, attaches it to the barrel. A beautiful Italian tourist flounders forward. “What a big telescope you have!” she blurts, as if delivering his punch line. Fumbling for English, disoriented perhaps by the fact that her vacation conflicts with the world’s end, she manages to stabilize herself against the eyepiece for a moment to take in an image of Saturn as crisp as anything published in National Geographic. Now she is truly speechless, swirling her fingers in the air. “Rings!” she splutters ecstatically, looking as if she might hug the scrawny fellow. “Rings!”
Several days after the world fails to end, Bob Alborzian, the skinny middle-aged astronomer sits with three of his telescopes in his pleasant backyard in Burbank. Alborzian is the most active recruiter for the Sidewalk Astronomers, whose members were at the observatory that night setting up their rough-hewn telescopes.
Quickly, he dismisses the astrological fearmongering that drew crowds and media to Griffith. Despite the fact that his father came from a Zoroastrian background heavy with astrolocial nuance, he say, he’s quick to point out the astronomical insignificance of this event. In his Sidewalk Astronomers T-shirt, shorts, socks, and sandals, Alborzian comes across as a sort of suburban-casual take on another Persian astronomer, Omar Khayyam. (By day, however, Alborzian runs inventory at a water pollution control plant in Torrance.) In front of him sits “Shab” (Farsi for “night”), a telescope similar to the device at Griffith.
Since the late 1960s the Sidewalk Astronomers, an international club based in L.A., have been hosting workshops where do-it-yourselfers build telescopes like Shab, using cardboard tubes, drain pipe, old shingles, leather belts, and marine-salvage portholes hand ground into mirrors. Even when all materials are purchased new, their telescopes cost no more than a few hundred dollars, while the end product stacks up astoundingly well to telescopes sold commercially for several thousand.
Hundreds of people have attended the club’s telescope-making workshops. A handful attend monthly gatherings at Griffith. A few haul their telescopes out in front of malls, schools, and libraries. The club occasionally hosts “Dark sky parties” in state parks, where away from urban light pollution telescopes more easily probe the depths of space. Yearly trips to the Grand Canyon or other national parks have inspired those outside of California to start Sidewalking chapters in a dozen or so cities across the U.S. and Canada.
But this is not just any telescope club; it’s a Dobsonian telescope club. These ugly workhorses are Dobsonians, and John Dobson, the 84-year-old inventor, and former Vedanta monk has been a good friend of Ablorzian’s for more than 30 years. Alborzian has even christened his first telescopes “JD” in the old man’s honor. Dobson started the Sidewalk Astronomers in San Francisco in 1968, and shortly thereafter, at Alborzian’s urging, the group expanded to Los Angeles, where it’s been headquartered for the past seven years. Alborzian boasts that his father figure. Dobson, is a renaissance man, simultaneously conversant in astronomy, botany, physics, chemistry, and philosophy, but he also alludes to Dobson’s unsteady nature — alternately charming, snippety, flamboyant, and blustery. The only thing predictable about Dobson, says Alborzian, is “Me. I am always there to buffer him.”
Dobson’s irascible nature resulted in a falling out with superiors in the monastary where he took his vows. back in 1944. Yet his equally alluring charms has gained him a friendly foothold in many of those same monasteries, including the Hollywood Hills Center, where he’s he’s earned himself a nearly 6-month residence. Tucked away on charmed cul de sac in the Hollywood hills, this site with its temple like a miniaturized Taj Mahal, was once frequented by writers like Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. It now happens to be the international headquarters of the Sidewalk Astronomers and home to its current president, Swami Atmavidyananda.
The Swami leads the way from monesatry halls outside, past beds of irises he cultivates for the temple, to the aluminum shed that comes as close as anything to terrestrial home of the Sidewalk Astronomers. He swings open the door to reveal a jumble of telescope tubes, boxes, and power tools, and picks up that first device he constructed. It is inscribed by Dobson with a verse from the Upanishads hearkening back to the old renegade’s Vedantist roots: “Not there the sun shines nor moon nor star.”
“It refers to refers to Brahma,” says the Swami, “God in unmanifest form, the source of light, of all things.”
Swami Atmavidyananda finds spiritual significance in the unity of energy and matter, time and space, and while his interest in physics dates back to former existence as Bill Scott, high-school math teacher in Quartzhill, California, Scott first met Dobson at a Vedantist cosmology lecture at this Center in Hollywood in 1978. It wasn’t until 1991 that Scott actually built his first telescope, “just before I became president,” he chuckles.
“I got involved because John wanted to do more than just the cosmology class here. He was looking for a place to hold regular telescope workshops. After we ran that first class, there was this leftover piece of glass, and John was staying on, so I ended up making one myself.” Scott’s accommodating and diplomatic tendencies were essential to Dobson relocating the group’s headquarters here from San Francisco seven years ago.
The next weekend, John Dobson, the rascally stargazer himself, is out on the lawn at Griffith where the group’s decades-long presence is encouraged by as an undeniably engaging (if unorthodox) and appetizer to the academic attractions to come inside the museum.
“Come see the Moon! Come see the moon,” Dobson cries as he hands out flyers on the observatory lawn. With his long white hair and theatrical manner, he could be an old carny or a doomsday pamphleteer. When a teenage girl peeks into the lens and declares the moon “cool,” Dobson begins his well-rehearsed patter. “Only the shadow side is cool, young lady. The sunny side is hot. Those rocks get as hot as boiling water!” he says stretching out that “oi” in boiling.
Meanwhile a Hispanic family man cocks his head incredulously at Alborzian’s telescope, obviously skeptical that he has seen the real thing through this overgrown toilet paper tube. “Please, please,” Alborzian says, “if you think there’s a slide in there, stick your head in and have a look.
“Dobson has worked out a down-to-earth solution to this common reaction of disbelief. “I turn the telescope on an apartment house window. They’ll see the TV program they know is on at nine – now *that’s* reality. I’ll make time for skeptics,” Dobson says. “I don’t mind helping them out. Skeptics gather information; gullible people gather garbage. The religious people are the worst, the ones who have it all figured out.”
Dobson’s story is one of struggling against established beliefs. Son of a Chinese musician and Canadian professor teaching in Beijing, Dobson’s family moved to San Francisco 1937, where he became a sort of proto-hippie, growing his hair long, dropping out of school, and immersing himself in Eastern religion. But after his swami sent him back to Berkeley, Dobson ended drafted into the military as a chemist working with uranium (ostensibly to be used as a fuel for ships). Increasingly drawn toward Vedanta, (a philosophical form of Hinduism affirming affinities with other faiths) Dobson left his research and joined the religious order. “I was in the monastery by ’44,” he recalls, “so by the time they dropped the bomb in ’45, I knew exactly what they’d wanted from that uranium.”
While working as a gardener in the monastery, Dobson’s interest wandered again, this time from botany to astronomy. He began sneaking off to build telescopes in a neighbor’s pump house, smuggling in glass for the mirrors in boxes of fertilizer. “We had a code going,” he says. “A telescope was called a geranium. A 12-inch geranium had a 12-inch lens, and a potted geranium had the mirror already in it.” As he built bigger and better telescopes, Dobson stashed them in homes of neighbors eager to peer through them. “More and more people were asking for them, and I was AWOL a lot building them. Eventually, I had this choice – either I had to tell these people to go to hell, or I had to risk getting thrown out of the monastery. Well, I didn’t tell them to go to hell.”
Ejected from the order in 1967, Dobson got a call a year later from the mother of a precocious boy too young to join a grown-up’s astronomy club. In response, the 53-year-old cosmologist, the nine-year-old boy, and a 17-year-old colleague founded the Sidewalk Astronomers.
To whatever extent it started as a lark with children, and however far Dobson traveled from the monastery, more metaphysical motives were always close to the surface, and he continued to lead a sort of ascetic existence, criss-crossing the country in a beat-up van jammed with telescopes, frequently staying at monasteries along the way, conducting telescope making workshops for Sidwalk Astronomy clubs here and there, but always hoping the hobbyists interest will extend beyond the reach of optics.
“The telescopes are the means to get you to look at the universe,” he says. “If you don’t look at the universe, then what the hell are you going to wonder about? First look at it – and damn it all – then you have to wonder about it. Then we do cosmology.”
When it comes to cosmology, Dobson says, he is “allergic to the Big Bang.” Whether or not his telescopes are admired by academics Dobson’s obstinate cosmological views make his acceptance into academic cliques especially difficult. From the compartmentalized perspective of academia, any philosophical soul (Vedantist or otherwise) intent on connecting astrophysics with *homo sapien* yearnings is an outsider. Sidwalk Astronomers the world over are eager to state that they espouse no allegiance to the teachings of Vedanta, yet there is no denying that these amatuers are outsiders as far as the academics are concerned. Still, that’s where the Sidewalk Astronomers want to be – not cloistered monasteries, nor cloistered in observatories — nowhere like this but outside with all those people bustling through the bigger picture. Out on the sidewalks.