John Dobson: The Hippy That Made Astronomy Hip

The Dobsonian telescope named after it’s inventor, John Dobson brought the heavens to a great number of people. It was fairly cheap to make, but gave you the ability to see things in the sky that most store bought telescopes would never let you see. The first time I got to see Saturn for myself was through a Dobsonian telescope and Jupiter looked huge and I could even make out more than the four moons you normally can see.

I’m not sure why, but John popped into my head over the weekend. I haven’t seen him in years and figured he had probably died. I think I was 10 when I last saw him and my parents and I took a class from him to make our own Dobsonian telescope. We met him one night outside the California Academy of Sciences with the group the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. They had brought telescopes out and had them set up and were inviting people to have a look. They were really quite simple reflector type telescopes. They had a mirror at the end of a big long tube which focused the sky’s image on to what he referred to in the class as the spider which had a mirror that reflected what it saw into the viewing aperture.

My Dad had always been into astronomy and when he asked John were he bought the telescope [this one was called the Zebra and painted with psychedelic zebra stripes] John told my Dad that he made it and offered classes on how to do it and you’d end up with one when you finished. You had to do all the work yourself, but I think it only cost around $50 at the time and my Dad was sold. The first couple of classes were just discussion and then we were given two round portholes and grit and told to get to work.

The process of making the big mirror for the telescope consisted of mixing some grit with water and putting it between the two portholes and rotating them in small circles. I think most of our neighbors thought we were crazy as my Dad on weekends would take the portholes out in the driveway and he and I would sit there for hours grinding away at the glass. Since my Dad only had weekends to work on the mirror and John always focused on perfection in the grinding we never finished the mirror, but we did get it as far as the pitch lap which I’m still not sure what part that plays in the mirror, but I remember it was the last step before your porthole became a mirror for your telescope. That and the tube for our 12″ telescope sat in our house for years until my astronomical friend Patty took them off our hands a few years ago.

One of the interesting things about John was that he wasn’t a child of the 60’s although he totally fit the bill when you saw him. He was actually born in 1915 [turns out he’s a Virgo like me] in Bejing, China which made him the same age as my Dad. He had a ponytail and probably still does. I don’t know how old the picture I found of him is, but that’s how I remember him. He, unlike my Dad is still alive today and still talking about Astronomy at the ripe old age of 96. I bet he still gets on his knees and grinds portholes into mirrors to this day. The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers [which John helped found] and their urban guerrilla astronomy are still thriving today. You can find them showing up around the city on clear nights holding star parties to entertain and teach the people passing by.

Because of John, I took up a big interest in science and still have a love for it today. I actually even worked at the Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences for a while as a teenager because I though the planetarium projector was just so cool and the fact that it was built out of spare parts during WWII gave it a kind of Dobsonian feel to it. John doesn’t have his own website, but he’s got a Wikipedia page and he’s mentioned frequently on the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers website. They have a calendar, but I didn’t see any upcoming star parties listed. You can also follow them on Twitter where you’ll probably here about their next star party. Check them out and you’ll be able to check out the stars for yourself one day.

Exploratorium: Hippy Cool

OK, I’m sure you’re asking what I mean by that headline. It’s not Hip & Cool, but Hippy Cool. That was a snobbish term I used as a kid to describe this museum because at the time the Hippies didn’t have a lot of money, but had some cool ideas so as a kid the Exploratorium had the look of an unfinished museum that was run by people who were at the time, well, hippie-ish.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing I soon discovered. Finished proper upscale museums that attracted the type of people who wore $2000 suits to drink champagne and say how much they loved science while getting their pictures taken and then went home to their Pacific Heights mansions never to be seen among the unwashed masses didn’t used to come here. That’s a good thing because science is a dirty thing. Just watch an episode of Bones or CSI and real scientists deal with some very gnarly stuff on a daily basis.

I think I learned this at a young age when I went to the Exploratorium and got to meet up with a Scatologist who was showing off some animal poop and then tearing it apart to tell us all what the animal had eaten. Gee, you can actually make money doing this? Then there was the Ornithologist who actually got me to help him pull apart owl pellets [that’s what owls barf up after they’ve eaten] to see if I could guess what the owl had eaten [I was right, it was a gopher.]

This was science that you could touch and were encouraged to touch. The floor back then was unfinished concrete and the place looked like a warehouse, but each exhibit was something you were encouraged to interact with and for a kid I liked that. I didn’t like the lectures where a scientist would hold up bottles of enbalmed dead things and then talk for an hour or two. I liked it when the scientists invited me to come closer and touch the junk they were playing with.

In the early days a lot of the things were donated from people such as their audio section that had an old theremin that had been donated along with xylophones and harps. They weren’t always up to snuff, but when you’re a kid you don’t really care if it’s in tune or if one of the keys is chipped. You got to bang on it and that for a kid was fun.

I think the biggest thing that kept me coming back was the tactile dome where you’re put into a large dark room with stuff in it. You don’t know what the stuff is, but because you can’t see it you have to use your hands to figure out what it is and if you can’t you have to use your imagination to try and figure out what your hands are touching.

The Exploratorium gave kids examples of science that they could go home and try for themselves, much to the chagrin of their parents. I remember filling soda bottles with sugar, yeast and water and sticking a balloon on top to watch it inflate and that was cool. I remember using potatoes to make a battery. I also learned that if you mix hydrochloric acid and lye together that you would end up with salt water, though my mom wouldn’t let me try that at home. I think that the Exploratorium brought the sciences to the masses better than any other museum because it handed them to you in a way you could relate to.

While it isn’t cheap any more it’s still half the price of the California Academy of Sciences and you’ll get more for your money there and you might get to ride a bicycle until you can light up a bulb or at the very least learn why people fart.

[gmap width=”650px” height=”200px” type=”satellite” visible=”true” static=”true” zoom=”16″ lat=”37.803986″ lon=”-122.44872099999998″]



California Academy of Sciences: Praise and Rants

I’ve been going to the California Academy of Sciences since I was a little kid. I’m talking before I could walk and I loved the old place. There was tons of things to do and see and oh how I remember the awful cheeseburgers and fries served in the downstairs cafeteria by a company called Duchess.

For a kid like me who was into science this was an awesome space because there was everything you could learn about, the Hall of Birds, the Hall of Minerals, Wild California, The Hall of Man, The fish roundabout, Life through Time, The Farside Gallery, the Elkus Gallery and of course the Planetarium and Aquarium. They also had a little know “Junior Academy” downstairs that offered Saturday courses to kids in the sciences from 5-18. The little kid classes didn’t work out so well, but that lead to the adding of the Discovery Center upstairs.

They also had regularly rotating exhibits that were usually pretty big. They had one on Shakespeare, Earthquakes, geez I a can’t remember them all. Then because of the 1989 earthquake there were a few problems and they just decided to rebuild the whole thing again and make it all snazzy and eco-friendly. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that they decided to twist a few heads with the bio roof and solar panels, but it’s not the same anymore. It’s all about the Aquarium.

When you walk in you get to see the Piazza which one of the places to purchase an overpriced, but healthy organic snack. You head through there and can see the tops of a Philipine coral reef on one side and the Northern California coast on the other. The old grungy hall of reptiles has gone, but they saved the swamp area at least with a couple of gators and snapping turtles. Walk down a few stairs and you get the sparse swamp area. You can look into gator tank from below and there’s a few snakes and a lizard or two there. Of course they have to have a swamp/aquarium shop there as well. Then travel down a few more stairs and the Aquarium hits you. Big huge tanks with lots of fish. Not the 10’x10′ tanks you used to see in the old aquarium. Of course to balance this they have many more 10 gallon tanks in the walls, but over all you’re going to see a lot of stuff you’ve never seen before. My daughter loves the aquarium and even though she’s only three she has her favorite tanks she likes to hang out at and stare down the fish, That’s a whole ‘nother story I’ll get into later. So pretty much, the aquarium is very, very cool. So what else is there?

Well they’ve added something new and that’s the rainforest exhibit. To balance out the global shape of the planetarium the rainforest is a globe of glass that you have to enter through special doors so none of the stuff that’s inside gets out. Inside they have birds flying around, yet while I hear them I have yet to see them other than a macaw that tethered at the bottom of ramp just before you start traveling through the jungles. Each level has a different theme to it and  in the small flattened areas to stop at they have…more fish tanks! plus some reptiles as well and it fits in nicely, but still, it’s all about the fish. When you get to the top which is the warmest place you’ll find lots of butterflies swarming around. They’re all pretty small so nothing freaky there. Now you can go back down and out so you go down an elevator after you’ve gone through a check to make sure there are no butterflies on you and that takes you all the way down to the aquarium. If you decide to go I suggest you start with the rainforest and head down to the aquarium because there are some things you’ll miss in the aquarium that aren’t too obvious when you first enter into it.

OK, what’s left? Well there’s the planetarium which I’d love to tell you about because I worked at the old one for four years, but I haven’t had the time to see it yet as I’m always there with my daughter and I’m not sure she’s ready to sit still for 45 minutes to an hour in the dark. I’ve seen videos of it and it’s real state of the art, so I’m looking forward to going once my daughter starts pre-school. They did manage to keep South African Hall, but made a few changes. Nothing too major, except for the addition of a tank of cichlids from lake Malawi and Tanganika in Eastern Africa that was originally the Charles Bange Memorial tank that was put in place by donations by the San Francisco Aquarium Society [note I was the president of the SFAS for 4 years and on the board of directors for 10 years]. Now it has someone else’s name on it so apparently the Academy has forgotten that many years ago the aquarium was kept afloat by donations from the SFAS and now the SFAS isn’t allowed to meet at the Academy anymore. The Herbst auditorium has been replaced with the Herbst Forum on the second floor and there’s also the Naturalist Center which is sort of a small library with displays of dead things or parts of dead things from the mammalogy and ornithology departments, but that’s it for the 2nd floor.

Other than that there’s a few small exhibits that don’t make up for what they didn’t keep in there. I noticed something when I was there today though. While they made it a little bit wider which is really mostly with outdoor garden areas, it’s much thinner. The swamp is at the back of the academy and that’s it. The aquarium used to run around it with other exhibits behind that. They gave up a lot that people can learn from. I’m not sure where the scientists do there work as in the old place there used to be two levels up with offices and labs and all the ichthyology and aquarium labs were down in the basement where the aquarium is now.

Now here is where the rants will begin. The real rants. When my wife and I got married in 1996 we got a family membership to the academy. It cost us…$25. With it we each got a card that would allow us to bring in a guest as well as 10 guest passes we could give out to our friends. It cost $7 to get in back then. We also got invited to a members only night where we could walk around the academy and get behind the scenes tours and feed for free.

Now, that same membership will cost you…$500! You can get the Family Plus membership, but you’ll have to pay $75 each for the behind the scenes tour. Ticket prices to get in are now $24.99 for adults, $19.99 for 12-17 and $14.99 for 4-11.

If you have kids, get a family membership. It’s $159 and you’ll get that back 10 fold in a short period of time. There is one thing to remember though, if you’re going to go you should take advantage of the members only hours of 8:30-9:30 on Tuesdays or 10-11 on Sundays. Especially if you have small kids. We went there about 12:30pm today and the place was packed. We couldn’t even let our daughter out of the stroller because we’d have lost her in seconds.

If you want to go on the cheap the last Thursday of the month is Nightlife where it will only cost you $12 to get in, but you have to be 21+ because they have bars set up all over the place. I haven’t been to one of these, but being a member I would still have to pay $10 in addition to the drinks.

I have to admit that I like the cafe that they have as they serve a wide variety of all organic meats and veggies with enough variety to suit everyone, but that all comes at a price. We tried it once and we got a breakfast quiche, muffin, coffee and an izzy’s soda for just under $15. The quiche was small, the muffin wasn’t very large, but the coffee and soda were good. Today, I noticed as we walked through the piazza that while there were people in line to buy food, most of the people there [some of which had to sit on the floor as there were no more tables] had brought their own food. The line to purchase tickets was at least 4 deep and 100 ft long. So I imagine that the wait would be close to an hour.

If you’re a member you get to put on your best smug face and walk through the members entrance where they not only ask for your card, but you ID as well to verify you aren’t loaning your card to friends. You also get a lot of other little discounts and benefits that you can find here. The funniest thing is that maybe we should have gotten an individual membership for $99 because it says you can bring a guest in with your card. It doesn’t say that with a family membership. So if you’re a couple and don’t expect to take any out of town relatives there that’s the best way to go about it. Overall, I’d have to say that the California Academy of Sciences has changed from a museum of science to a political show off piece. Gavin Newsom is even quoted as saying it’s his favorite place in San Francisco. You don’t get to talk to the scientists who are doing the work behind the scenes, but you can watch them through glass sometimes in the lab that’s open to the public for viewing, but no entrance.