12/15/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
AT A BUSY INTERSECTION ON A cool San Francisco night, passersby stop to stare at the stars. We're not talking Demi or Brad or even ET. We mean really big stars—even planets. Tonight it's Jupiter, with four moons visible. "Wow!" exclaims one woman, dazzled by the image in John Dobson's homemade telescope. "They're so clear!"
Dobson, 82, has made provoking that kind of reaction his life's mission. A tinkerer, whose designs helped make powerful, inexpensive telescopes possible and popular, Dobson—and Sidewalk Astronomers, a group he helped found 29 years ago—lug their scopes to different cities and states to let the public gaze free of charge at worlds beyond ours. "What I think John would like to be remembered for is that he turned thousands of people on to astronomy," says Richard Berry, former editor of Astronomy magazine. Dobson, raised in China and San Francisco, has always been a searcher. In 1944, he became a monk in the Ramakrishnam, a monastic order with origins in India. A chemist by training, he built his first telescope in a San Francisco monastery in 1957, using cardboard tubes and grinding the mirror from a ship's porthole. "I knew the universe was made of hydrogen falling together by gravity, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes," says Dobson. Fascinated by what he found, he was determined to share it and was booted from the order in 1967 after being reported AWOL too often with his telescopes.
Though his designs have been copied and sold commercially, Dobson never applied for a patent and makes no money from them. He lives frugally, teaching at a museum, and is as passionate as ever about what's up. "Everybody," he says, "has got to see this!"