TCS Daily

Stardust Contemplates the Stars

By Kenneth Silber - August 4, 2005 12:00 AM

In 1967, a monk named John Dobson was kicked out of a California monastery run by the Vedanta Society, a Western offshoot of Hindu philosophy. His transgression consisted of unauthorized absences which were assumed to involve, as he later put it, "doing it." What Dobson was actually doing, however, was setting up his homemade telescope outside the monastery walls and showing people the stars.

The following year, Dobson co-founded Sidewalk Astronomers, a loosely organized group that sets up telescopes for people to use, and helps them build their own. Dobson, now 89, is a master of building telescopes from cheap materials, and is inventor of the Dobsonian mount, a boxlike platform that holds a telescope tube steady and enables easy swiveling. Dobson's innovations and proselytizing for stargazing have done much to create the amateur astronomy boom of recent decades.

Astronomy, whether amateur or professional, might seem like a luxury or even a distraction from more pressing matters. But the field has enormous practical as well as intellectual importance. Astronomy is a guard against space-based risks such as Earth-crossing asteroids. It also is vital to understanding environmental issues; global warming emerged as an issue partly due to observation of Venus's greenhouse effect, and there is ongoing debate about the effects of solar variability and cosmic rays on Earth's climate. Astronomy also provides technological spin-offs, as when adaptive optics developed for telescopes enabled spy satellites to peer through atmospheric distortion. Plus, as Dobson has shown, telescopes, far from being a luxury, can be constructed from junk.

Diverse glimpses of astronomy's appeal and importance can be gotten from two new works. A Sidewalk Astronomer is a documentary film about Dobson, directed by filmmaker and amateur astronomer Jeffrey Fox Jacobs. Astronomical Enigmas: Life on Mars, the Star of Bethlehem & Other Milky Way Mysteries is a book by Canary Islands-based professional astronomer Mark Kidger (published by Johns Hopkins University Press).

As the film opens, Dobson is doing what he often does -- standing on a sidewalk with a telescope, importuning passersby to take a look, in this case at the moon. Some people just walk by, but those who look through the eyepiece are impressed, even astounded. He shows them a crater into which Texas could fit, and tells them they are seeing the moon as it would look "one hour before you landed on it." Later, we see Dobson in daylight with a telescope and eye-protecting gear. "Come see the sunspots," he says. One young woman takes a look and then turns dazedly to the camera. "That's intense," she says.

A Sidewalk Astronomer is replete with beautiful imagery of celestial objects, including many pictures taken by satellites and space probes. Throughout, Dobson tosses out an engaging profusion of anecdotes, jokes, advice for telescope users, wry observations, scientific speculations and philosophical commentary. He suggests that people need to break away from their "genetic programming," which determines how we perceive and react to events on Earth, and instead get a sense of the universe on vastly larger scales.

Dobson propounds some unorthodox ideas about astronomy and cosmology. He does not believe in the Big Bang, and thinks that astronomers are on the wrong track in pursuing current notions of dark matter and dark energy. Dobson's ideas merit respect, and are in keeping with the views of a minority of astronomers and cosmologists. However, his key argument against the Big Bang -- that something could not have arisen from nothing -- seems contrary to the evidence of quantum mechanics and may be an example of what Dobson elsewhere warns against: an over-reliance on our Earth-based preconceptions.

Astronomical Enigmas, too, discusses a wide range of issues related to the sky. Delving into what our ancestors knew about celestial phenomena, Kidger contemplates whether Stonehenge was used to predict eclipses (he is skeptical) and why many stars have Arabic names (Ptolemy's ancient star catalog survived only in Arabic translation). What was the Star of Bethlehem? Considering various astronomical phenomena that may have been involved, Kidger suggests that the Star could have been a nova witnessed in 5 B.C., after a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. was taken as a harbinger of great events.

Unlike many professional astronomers, Kidger is an enthusiast of manned space travel. He argues that sophisticated missions, such as determining if life exists on Mars, require a human presence. He also points out the vulnerability of having the entire human population confined to a single planet. Kidger regards the moon with enthusiasm as a priority for settlement, noting for example how its polar water could sustain settlements, and that the moon's far side would be a terrific place to do astronomical observation.

Are we stardust? Kidger answers this question with an emphatic yes, tracing in some detail how our bodies, and much else on our planet, largely consist of elements that were cooked inside stars and recycled via stellar explosions. In A Sidewalk Astronomer, Dobson agrees, but is far more succinct as he points to a picture of a gas nebula. "If you give this cloud another 10 billion years," he says, "it will go to school and chew gum."


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