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Start Hubble, the Man Behind the Telescope
20 November 2016

Hubble, the Man Behind the Telescope

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The name has become so attached to the space telescope that for the general public the name Hubble does not designate a person, but rather a ship, such as Titanic or Enterprise. However, it seems obvious that a person must have done something great in his life to warrant having his name attached to a stellar achievement of space science. And so it is in this case, but the curious thing is that the assessment of the character of Hubble has been argued about, with some even going so far as to question his honesty.

Studio Portrait of Edwin Powell Hubble in 1931. Credit: Johan Hagemeyer

The destiny of Edwin Powell Hubble (November 20, 1889 – September 28, 1953) was to follow in the footsteps of his father with a career in the legal profession. As an obedient son from a traditional Midwestern family, he studied law. But according to his biography Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae by Gale E. Christianson (University of Chicago Press, 1996), his passion was the firmament. At the age of eight he looked for the first time through a telescope constructed by his maternal grandfather, while his paternal grandfather would chat about the canals of Mars described by Percival Lowell.

From studying law to Hubble’s Law

The change in trajectory in Hubble’s professional career occurred in 1913 when the death of his father prompted him to return home from Oxford, where he had been studying law. Four years later, Hubble had his doctorate in astronomy. Of course, perhaps his father would have been satisfied knowing that, ironically, his son who abandoned his legal career has gone down in history thanks to something called Hubble’s Law.

Until the time of Hubble, the idea most accepted by astronomers was that everything observable in the sky belonged to the Milky Way, including what were then called “spiral nebulae.” But at the Lowell Observatory, founded by the champion of the Martian canals, an astronomer named Vesto Slipher had discovered that the light of many of these nebulae was red-shifted, suggesting that they were moving away at great speeds.

From the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, where he would practice until his death in 1953, Hubble combined Slipher’s data with his own measurements of distances to some of these nebulae, concluding that they were too far away to belong to the Way Milky – they had to be independent galaxies. The relationship between distances and redshifts was almost linear within a range of distances. This is what is we know today as Hubble’s Law.

An Explanation for the Big Bang

Hubble’s discovery was fundamental to our understanding of the expansion of the universe and to the development of the cosmological model of the Big Bang. For this reason, the astronomer is remembered today as “the man who discovered the cosmos,” and in 1983 he was considered deserving enough to have his name given to the Large Space Telescope. Hubble did not receive the Nobel Prize because the award rules did not include astronomy among the disciplines of the Physics category, something that would change shortly after his death.

The Hubble Space Telescope begins its separation from Space Shuttle Discovery following its release on mission SM2. Credit: NASA

Because of this, Hubble is sometimes portrayed as the man who discovered the expansion of the universe, and yet the truth is that Hubble did not actually believe in this phenomenon. In his 1929 essay, published in the journal PNAS, he established the relationship between galactic velocities and distances, but even in 1942 he wrote that the redshift could be due to “some hitherto unrecognized principle in nature.”

In fact, when Hubble learned that a Belgian astronomer and priest named Georges Lemaître had come to the same conclusions and had proposed an expansion of the universe, he remained sceptical. Lemaître’s idea was based on a solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity proposed by the Russian physicist and mathematician Alexander Friedmann. But the expansion clashed with the view of Einstein himself, who believed in a static universe. In the end, Lemaitre was right, and Einstein was obliged to change his opinion. The Belgian priest’s idea of ​​the “cosmic egg” would lead to what we know today as the Big Bang.

Accused of censoring Lemaître

But the fact is that Lemaître published his study in a Belgian magazine in 1927, two years before Hubble. In 2011, astronomer Sidney van den Bergh discovered that the English translation of Lemaître’s original study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1931, appeared incomplete. It was missing the paragraphs in which the Belgian defined his own version of Hubble’s Law and its associated constant.

The strange omission was the subject of a heated debate, in which it was suggested that Hubble himself conspired to censor the translation. In the end, astrophysicist Mario Livio discovered in a letter from Lemaître the proof that it was the priest himself who edited his manuscript for the English version, eliminating tentative calculations that Hubble had already refined by then. “Lemaître was not at all obsessed with establishing priority for his original discovery,” Livy wrote.

Hubble’s reputation has thus come through unscathed. But the episode has served to emphasize that the assessment of his contributions should not overshadow those of others. The American must share historical honours with a modest Belgian priest who, unlike him, never hired an advertising agent to promote his own Nobel Prize nomination.

By Javier Yanes for Ventana al Conocimiento


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