This review was updated on May 18, 2005
On a San Francisco street, John Dobson conjures the wonders of the universe, inviting passersby to “Come see the moon.” Most walk on, but those who take the time to stop and look are astonished. Jeffrey Jacobs’ entertaining, painlessly educational docu, showcasing the heavens and the man who brought them down to earth, grants the extraordinary 89-year-old a new public forum. Controversial views on the Big Bang theory may scare away PBS sticklers, but docu should still attract appreciative auds in small- and bigscreen venues.
Dobson is the inventor of the Dobsonian mount — a device that revolutionized the telescope, making large-diameter telescopes that once necessitated costly setups available to anyone with a few bucks and the will to gaze into deep space.
A former Vedantan monk, Dobson gave away an invention that could have made him millions, sharing it with as many people as he could. He holds telescope-making workshops and encourages others to become sidewalk astronomers.
Jacobs’ docu picks up Dobson, his hair in a white ponytail, expounding on his theories, telling the same astrophysical jokes at colleges, astronomy clubs, star parties and telescope-makers conventions, often cutting mid-phrase to finish with the punchline in the next-visited venue.
Dobson’s accessible approach (describing the density of a neutron star as “100,000 U.S. aircraft carriers all covered with airplanes and sailors on parade squeezed into a mayonnaise jar”) has made the self-taught astronomer, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “one of history’s greatest popularizers of science.”
Whether or not one buys his alternate theory of cosmic recycling, Dobson’s colorful language and passionate beliefs transcend particulars. And as Dobson muses on the nature of time and space, Jacobs intermixes footage from satellites with images from the astronomer’s slide show in a collage of swirling astral configurations.
Docu, like Dobson himself, makes no distinction between the public figure and the private person. Never intrusive, the camera captures a discourse that is already well-rehearsed — and fascinating — performance art.