You may have heard of one of the most important telescopes in the world – the Hubble Space Telescope. But do you know about the man it was named after? If you’re thinking of a studious scientist with his nose in his books, it couldn’t be farther from reality.
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British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking wrote in his book, A Brief History of Time, that Hubble's "discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th century”. American astronomer Edwin Hubble didn’t start out exploring the cosmos though – his long, winding path to the stars is a story of beating the odds.
Here are a few interesting facts about him:
1. He wasn’t a science nerd
Growing up near Chicago, US, in 1889, Hubble was intelligent and athletic, but not inclined to spend hours studying. According to the official website of the Hubble Space Telescope, at his high school graduation in 1906, his principal told Hubble: “Edwin Hubble, I have watched you for four years and I have never seen you study for ten minutes." He paused, before adding: "Here is a scholarship for the University of Chicago." While at the university, Hubble excelled at boxing – so much so, that a promoter eagerly asked him if he should set up a fight between him and then-world champion Jack Johnson. Hubble declined the offer.
2. He almost gave up astronomy for good
Hubble went on to obtain a degree in mathematics and astronomy in 1910. Because of his athletic prowess in both basketball and boxing, and his academic ability, he received a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to the University of Oxford in England. However, Hubble’s passion for astronomy had to be put on the back burner at this stage. He reluctantly made a promise to his dying father, who was against his infatuation with astronomy, that he would pursue law instead of science. When Hubble returned to the US in 1913, he had an affected British accent that he would maintain for the rest of his life. He passed the bar exam and half-heartedly practised law for a year. He also took on the role of a teacher at the New Albany High School, and taught Spanish, physics and maths, along with coaching basketball. He was so popular, the school dedicated its yearbook to him that year.
3. Back to the stars
When he finished a year of teaching, in May 1914, Hubble decided to go back to his first passion, and enrolled as a graduate student to learn more about astronomy. However, once he graduated, the First World War forced him to postpone plans of working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California – he was shipped off to France, and only returned to the US in 1919. The minute he landed, he made his way to the Observatory, and – still in uniform – introduced himself as Major Hubble, ready to start observing the cosmos.
4. The turning point
Hubble met his lifelong rival, Harlow Shapley, at the Observatory. Shapley had already successfully measured the size of the Milky Way, but like other astronomers at the time, thought that the Milky Way was the extent of the universe. In October 1923, Hubble spotted a nova star in the M31 nebula, in the constellation of Andromeda. With careful analysis, he discovered that M31 was a million lightyears away – far outside the Milky Way – and so proved that there are galaxies comprising millions of stars far beyond our galactic neighbourhood. His discovery was unprecedented – it expanded the universe dramatically. Hubble had opened the world’s eyes to the vast cosmos.
5. Hubble’s Law
Despite the significance of his discovery, Hubble was yet to make his greatest impact on astronomy. He began to classify all the known nebulae and measure their velocities. In 1929, he realised something no one had before – all the galaxies were receding from us, with velocities that increased in proportion to their distance from us – a relationship now called Hubble’s Law. It was a breakthrough for astronomy, ending the idea that the universe is static. More than a decade earlier, German-born physicist Albert Einstein had theorised the same thing – that the universe is expanding – but had corrected his equations because observations at the time didn’t align with his theory. Now, Hubble’s evidence showed Einstein was right in the first place. Einstein was so appreciative, he visited Hubble at the Observatory to express his gratitude, and called the moment he changed his equations “the greatest blunder of my life”.
Despite his contributions to astronomy, Hubble never received the Nobel Prize. At the time, there wasn’t even a category for this field of science. But with the Hubble Space Telescope – a space observatory that has revolutionised modern astronomy – named after him, and hundreds of discoveries made along the way, his legacy lives on.
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