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Who Was Edwin Hubble?

Edwin Hubble

Hubble with his sister Lucy in 1917.

Edwin Hubble (1889-1953)

In high school and at the University of Chicago Hubble was a star athlete as well as a scholar. Hubble was two years younger than most of his classmates, but he was 6 feet 3 inches tall and very well coordinated. Usually he placed in Big Ten dual track meets, in both the shot put and the high jump.

The University of Chicago 1909 intercollegiate championship basketball team. Hubble is on the left.

In 1910 Hubble went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. It was a high honor, awarded to a small number of outstanding student-athlete-leaders. At Oxford Hubble studied Roman law and Spanish, competed in track and field events and swam on the water polo team. He later said he fought an exhibition boxing match against the French national champion, and did well enough that promoters wanted him to train to fight the world heavyweight champion. Hubble also told of a duel with a German naval officer whose wife had flirted with the handsome Hubble — to satisfy the officer's honor they harmlessly discharged pistols in a library. These stories may tell us less about actual events than about Hubble's lifelong drive to promote a romantic image of himself.

After three years at Oxford, Hubble returned to his family home in Louisville, Kentucky. He taught physics and Spanish at a high school and also became a member of the Kentucky bar, but never actually practiced law. In 1914 he returned to the University of Chicago and the Yerkes Observatory. He hoped to finish his doctoral dissertation on a photographic investigation of faint nebulae and take up a position at the Mount Wilson Observatory in the summer of 1917.


Hubble (right) with two other astronomers (Walter Adams, left and James Jeans, middle) in front of
a 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson.
In April, however, the United States declared war on Germany. Hubble rushed through his dissertation, took his final oral exam, and reported to the army for duty three days later. He served in France and made the rank of major before the war ended.

In 1919 Hubble finally joined the Mount Wilson Observatory. There his achievements made him the foremost astronomer of the 20th century and one of the most influential scientists of all time in changing our understanding of the universe. He demonstrated conclusively, after centuries of fruitless speculation by other astronomers, that spiral nebulae are independent galaxies at great distances beyond our own galaxy. This great accomplishment was only the starting point for Hubble. Other scientists, including Einstein, had assumed the universe to be static. Hubble went on to show that the universe is expanding.







Hubble lived in San Marino, California near Pasadena. He traveled to Europe several times to give lectures and receive important honors. Hubble partied in nearby Hollywood with movie stars, including Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, and with famous writers, including Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Anita Loos. But his favorite hobby was fishing.

World War II interrupted Hubble's work on cosmology. He served as chief of ballistics and director of the Supersonic Wind Tunnels Laboratory at the Army Proving Grounds in Maryland. He was awarded the Medal of Merit for his war-time work. After the war he supported the construction of the gigantic 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain south of Mount Wilson, which helped put him on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. In 1953, shortly after the 200-inch was completed, Hubble died of a heart attack. It was too soon for conclusive answers from the research program he had planned for the new telescope. Indeed different measurements of the expansion of the universe did not reach broad agreement until another great instrument was placed in orbit, named the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble in the observer's cage located at the top of the tube of the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain.
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