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Monday, November 19, 2007

Clair de Lune

Tonight I had to stop after work and look at the moon while I was on my way to buy Brussels sprouts to make with our dinner tonight.

It's possible that I might have gazed up for a second on my own, but the old man beckons me to stop for a moment and look at the night sky at the corner of 9th and Irving, where people are waiting to cross the street or are getting off the streetcar to destinations homeward.

I'm glad to see the old gentleman. I haven't seen him on the corner for a while. I ask him where he's been and he matter-of-factly replies, "It's been foggy." Which is true.

I remember the first time I saw this man, maybe sometime back on a cold February night: frail, with white hair combed back into a ponytail, dressed in somewhat shabby clothes that didn't seem quite warm enough, standing next to a Radio Flyer red kid's wagon with something that looked like an assemblage of coffee cans in the wagon. He was asking people to come over to him. The Boy and I were just leaving our favorite neighborhood sushi bar to walk the two blocks back to our house.

When you live in San Francisco, it's pretty much an everyday occurrence to see street people who want your attention (i.e., money), and so as an automatic defense mechanism, you learn not to look at them. Sad but true.

But this guy was snappy. It was obvious he wasn't a derelict, and he was alert and commanding in an interesting way. So we came over to him and his conglomeration of coffee cans in the wagon which, to my surprise, wasn't a hunk of junk at all but a telescope. A Dobsonian telescope. The old man wanted to show us the moon through his telescope. What a delightful surprise.

What was even a more delightful surprise was the crystal clear image of the moon as I looked through the viewfinder. You could see every little crater on the moon's surface, sharply illuminated by the bright contrasty light of the sun's rays traveling through the void of space. It was such a clear image, and large too, that you felt as if you could reach out and touch the moon. I've grown up looking through a telescope and I've never seen anything that crystal clear.

The most delightful surprise of all is that this old man is not just out for a lark on the street corner. He's actually a famous astronomer: his name is John Dobson. The Dobsonian telescope we were looking into--you guessed it--it was named after him. He invented it.

Anyway, long story short, over the past year I've seen Mr. Dobson and his telescope, enticing people walking by, engaging them in conversations about the universe and astronomy. Because of him, I've seen Saturn and its beautiful delicate rings that make you sigh because you can't believe you're standing on a random street corner in San Francisco and looking at something so beautiful. I've seen Jupiter and its great red spot. I've seen Venus and Mars and the moon in its different phases. (One of his disciples was out one Saturday afternoon with a different telescope that has a special filter so we could view the solar flares erupting from the surface of the sun.)

John Dobson is one of the most interesting people you'll ever want to meet. According to his bio, he was born in 1915, which makes him 92 years old this year. He takes his little red wagon with his telescope onto the streetcar to our corner for these impromptu astronomy lessons. He was born in China, educated in California, spent three decades as a monk, and three decades gazing at stars on sidewalks.

He's referred to as the "Pied Piper of Astronomy" and the "Star Monk," and when he's not here in SF, he's traveling around the world with his telescope. He also teaches classes on how you can make your own Dobsonian telescope.

If you can't make it out to the corner of 9th and Irving, here's a link to his website, and more about him here.


Debbi November 20, 2007 at 5:55 AM  

It is people like this that make life joyful! thanks for sharing! I just spent the past few days muttering "I hate people..." and reading about this gentleman has changed my mind. :-)

studio wellspring November 20, 2007 at 8:46 AM  

what an uplift ~ he sounds fascinating. i'll have to spend more time strolling the streets of our 'hood so i can meet him too. ;o)

tangobaby November 20, 2007 at 10:53 AM  

Hi Debbi,

I understand completely. When you encounter someone who genuinely wants to share something with you, to better your world, even if only for a few seconds, it makes the frustrations of life seem to disappear, if for a little while. I hope things are better for you today.


Dear Ms. Wellspring,

You'll find him on random clear evenings at the corner of 9th and Irving (near Ebisu) or across the street near the beauty supply store.

When I first met him, I was astonished to learn that he takes his telescope and wagon all by himself from the avenues of the Outer Sunset (I think he lives out near 40th?) to our neighborhood. His effort to do that made his presentation even more touching. I hope you see him someday.

dutchbaby November 20, 2007 at 2:54 PM  

Because you were receptive to this gentleman and treated him with respect, you were rewarded with a unique experience.

I think I'll go this his website and maybe arrange for my son to meet him. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

one2tango November 21, 2007 at 3:14 AM  

Such a beautiful story, Tangobaby, and a marvellous person indeed. And so are you for realizing it:)

tangobaby November 21, 2007 at 9:07 AM  

Dearest dutchbaby,

Be sure to let me know if you're up here... ;-)

Here is an interesting article about him in the Smithsonian Magazine, titled 35 Who Made a Difference: John Dobson
Come one, come all. Share the sky with the father of sidewalk astronomy

and here is the link:


There was a documentary made about him. I haven't seen it yet but would like to:


tangobaby November 21, 2007 at 9:08 AM  

Thank you, One2Tango, for your reply and the lovely compliment! Thank you, as always, for reading and checking in with me. ;-)


Claire upon Tyne November 23, 2007 at 11:41 AM  

Sounds lovely...wish we had a John Dobson where we live...great story thanks for sharing.

La Nuit Blanche November 30, 2007 at 2:43 PM  

it sounds like you have your very own Gaspare! except your's is much much much cooler than mine. ;)

this is such a beautiful story -- one only you could have recounted with such free-spirited exuberance.

love you,

tangobaby November 30, 2007 at 4:02 PM  

Thank you for the compliment, my lovely Nuit.

Actually his comparison to Gaspare is slight. Mr. Dobson is all business: if you are not there to chat astronomy or cosmology with him, then he will move on to the next person...

And I love you, too. Like the moon rising and setting every month, a constant.