H is for Hubble, the Man and the Telescope

Edwin Powell Hubble (November 20, 1889 – September 28, 1953)  was a great American astronomer and one of the most important observational cosmologists. He is best known for showing that the universe was expanding and that all the galaxies in the universe were moving away from one another, and at ever increasing speeds.

This discovery is known as known as “Hubble’s law” and the motion of astronomical objects due solely to this expansion is known as the Hubble flow. Some believe that the law should be referred to as “Lemaître’s law” since had been previously discovered by another astronomer, and priest, named Georges Lemaître. Hubble did confirm the findings and provided a more accurate value for the rate of expansion so the original name has stuck.

Stephen Hawking himself wrote that Hubble’s “discovery that the Universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th century”. 

Hubble is also known for providing evidence that many of the objects we classified as “nebulae” were actually other galaxies outside of the Milky Way although American astronomer Vesto Slipher provided the first evidence for this argument almost a decade before.

Studio Portrait of Edwin Powell Hubble. Photographer: Johan Hagemeyer, Camera Portraits Carmel. Photograph signed by photographer, dated 1931. By Johan Hagemeyer (http://hdl.huntington.org/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edwin Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889 to Virginia Lee James and John Powell Hubble, an insurance executive. In his youth he was praised more for his athletic ability than his intellect. He did receive good grades in every subject except spelling. He played baseball, football, basketball, and he ran track in both high school and college. He even broke the Illinois state high jump record!

Hubble went on to the University of Chicago in 1901 where he worked under Robert Millikan, who later won a Nobel Prize in physics. When Hubble graduated four years later he enrolled at the University of Oxford to study law philosophy. He graduated three years later and around that same time his father passed away.

After teaching for a short time, Hubble went back to the University of Chicago to study astronomy. He was quickly recruited to help construct the Hooker telescope at California’s Mount Wilson Observatory and he was excited to accept. Just before beginning the new position he completed his doctorate, joined the army, and served a tour in World War I.

Afterward he worked at Mount Wilson where he proved that other galaxies did exist outside of the Milky Way using the Hooker telescope. This discovery changed the entire field of astronomy and added a new branch to the science called  extragalactic astronomy.

In the mid 1920s Hubble started working on some new research with fellow astronomer Milton Humason. He studied the other galaxies, the same ones he proved existed, and looked at their spectral shifts and distances and theorized the redshifts in galaxies’ light emissions directly corresponded to their distances from other galaxies. The research was well received. 

It even led Albert Einstein to admit that ignoring the idea and subsequently “fudging” his equations to avoid it was “the biggest blunder of his life”.

In 1936, Hubble published The Realm of the Nebulae,  a piece on his research. Hubble worked at Mount Wilson Observatory until 1942, when he left to work at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during World War II. For his service during the war, in 1946, Hubble received the Medal of Merit.

In July of 1949 Hubble had a heart attack will vacationing in Colorado. Afterward his wife cared for him and he was put on a modified diet and schedule. In September of 1953 he died of a spontaneous blood clot in his brain in San Marino, California. He had no funeral and his wife kept the burial site a secret.

During Hubble’s lifetime the Nobel Prize in Physics did not recognize work in the field of astronomy. Hubble did attempt to change this and argued that astronomers should be recognized by the committee for their contributions to astrophysics. Hubble was not able to convince the committee in his lifetime but shortly after his death the decision was made to recognize astronomers for their work. Unfortunately, the prize cannot be awarded posthumously.

Which is really sad because if anyone deserved it, Edwin Hubble surely did.

“I knew that even if I were second or third rate, it was astronomy that mattered.”

– Edwin Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis, flying STS-125, HST Servicing Mission 4. By Ruffnax (Crew of STS-125) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When scientists decided to name the Hubble Space Telescope after the founder of modern cosmology the choice could not have been more appropriate.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990. Because the telescope is outside of Earth’s atmosphere the images it captures are not distorted. Hubble captures incredibly detailed, high resolution images in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra. I encourage you to check out the HubbleSite’s complete gallery of images, many of which I have used for these posts.

Just like the man it’s named after, The Hubble Telescope has lead scientists to many breakthroughs in astrophysics.

Since Hubble’s launch in 1990 it has been service in space by astronauts four times. It is the only telescope designed to be serviced in space this way. Sadly it cannot go on forever and scientists believe it will last until about 2020 so they have scheduled the launch of it’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, in 2018.

This telescope has produced some of the most informative and awe inspiring images that when the time comes and Hubble shuts down it will be missed by the entire astronomy community.


Image: Halley’s Comet

Comet 1P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW) Large Scale Phenomena Network. By NASA/W. Liller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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