365daysDate: June 9, 2009

Title: Who Was Edwin Hubble?


Podcaster: Doug Allen


Description: Hubble has become a household word synonymous with incredible views of the universe. Yet what do we know about the man after which the Hubble Space Telescope was named? This podcast examines the life and work of Edwin Powell Hubble (1889 – 1953), widely regarded as one of the leading astronomers of the 20th century. We will look at Hubble’s early life and education (including both academic and athletic accomplishments), military service in WWI, career accomplishments, and his lasting legacy.

Bio: Doug Allen is a professor of physics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where he teaches courses in physics, meteorology, and astronomy and does research in atmospheric science. He enjoys studying the lives of the astronomers and sharing his love for the astronomy both in and out of the classroom.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” prefers to stay anonymous. We thank you for your support!


Hello, I’m Doug Allen, professor of physics and astronomy at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois. In today’s podcast we review the life and work of astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble. Hubble was born November 20, 1889 in Marshfield, Missouri, the third of six children of John Powell Hubble and Virginia Lee James. In 1899, Hubble moved to Evanston, Illinois when his father’s company offered him a position in Chicago. In 1901 the Hubbles moved again to Wheaton, a suburb along the Chicago and Northwestern railroad line. Hubble attended seventh through twelfth grade at Wheaton’s Central School, where he excelled both academically and athletically. One of his teachers was Harriet Grote, whose son, Grote Reber, became one of the very first radio astronomers. Central School’s principal, John Russell, a former science professor at Wheaton College, often brought students to the college’s observatory to use the 12-½ inch reflector.

In high school Hubble participated in various athletic events. He was the center of the basketball team that beat Ottawa high 46-10 for the state championship. He also excelled at track, winning the state high jump event with a record jump of 5’8 ½”. At graduation Hubble was stunned when the superintendent announced, “Edwin Hubble, I have watched you for four years, and I have never seen you study for ten minutes.” Then he said with a smile “here is a scholarship to the University of Chicago.”

In the fall of 1906, Hubble enrolled at the University of Chicago. He wanted to study astronomy, but his father disapproved, so he played a waiting game, taking both scientific and pre-law courses. There he met Forest Ray Moulton, who was involved in the early stages of the planetesimal theory of planetary origin. He also met the luminaries A. A. Michelson, who in 1909 became the first American to win a Nobel Prize, and Robert Millikan, another Nobel laureate in the making. At Chicago he was also involved in athletics, playing basketball and running track. Coach Stagg, the football innovator who invented such plays as the double-reverse and the flea-flicker, tried hard to get him to join the team, but his parents disapproved. Instead he took up boxing, even sparring against the European champion Carpentier.

Upon graduation Hubble was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which involved three years of study at Queen’s College, Oxford. He began studying law at his father’s advice, but eventually finished with a degree in Spanish. In 1913 he returned home from Oxford, donning a cape and cane and speaking with a strong accent. He first taught Spanish and physics and coached basketball at a high school in New Albany, Indiana. However, he soon decided to pursue his love of astronomy in graduate school. Dr. Moulton of the University of Chicago put him in contact with Edwin B. Frost of Yerkes Observatory, near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which was operated by the University and housed the famous 40-inch refractor. Frost offered him a position and suggested that on the way to Yerkes Hubble should attend the Astronomical Society of America meeting, held that year in Evanston. There Hubble heard Vesto P. Slipher speak on the shifting light from the spiral nebulae. Slipher found that some spiral nebulae are moving toward the Earth at rapid velocities and some are moving away. This suggested that the nebulae might be “island universes,” separate from our own Milky Way Galaxy, a fact that Hubble eventually was able to prove.

In 1917, while completing his doctoral dissertation, Congress declared war on Germany. Hubble enlisted and joined the Black Hawk division and was quickly promoted to Captain of the 2nd battalion, 343rd infantry regiment. He served as a field and line officer near Bordeaux, France and received a minor concussion when knocked senseless by a bursting shell. Although he recovered quickly, the war ended before he could see the front again. Returning to America, he was offered a job at Mt. Wilson Observatory, home of the famous 100-inch Hooker telescope.

He arrived at Mt. Wilson no longer a graduate student, but a major and he acted like one. He wouldn’t settle until he could get the best observing nights on the mountain. Of course, this attitude didn’t endear him to all on the mountain. His greatest rival was Harlow Shapley, who in 1920 participated in “The Great Debate” with Lick Observatory astronomer Heber Curtis on “The Scale of the Universe.” Shapley argued for a huge single galaxy, with the spiral nebulae as clouds of gas within that galaxy, while Curtis argued that the spiral nebulae were separate from the Milky Way.

Hubble helped resolve this debate when in 1923 he discovered a Cepheid variable in the Andromeda Nebula. It was known that the periods of Cepheids are directly related to their absolute magnitude, so one can indirectly obtain distance measurements to Cepheids using the observed period. He estimated the distance to be at least 300,000 parsecs, nearly 1 million light years, much farther than even the edges of Shapley’s bloated Milky Way. When Hubble wrote Shapley of this discovery, Shapley apparently remarked, “Here is the letter that has destroyed my universe.” Hubble then started an all out assault on variable stars in distant nebulae, cataloguing many more and all but establishing the island universe theory as the dominant view of the cosmos.

Around this time Hubble met and married Grace Burke Leib, the widow a businessman killed in a mining accident. When they were married in February 1924 Hubble offered to take up law so Grace could continue her high standard of living. She told him “not if it means forsaking your love of the stars.” They built a home in Pasadena and enjoyed life among the Hollywood stars.

Hubble’s second great accomplishment was to develop a classification system that allowed for sorting and categorizing the galaxies. This resulted in the famous tuning fork diagram, which separates the nebulae according to their shape, from ellipticals, to spirals, to barred spirals.

His greatest scientific achievement, however, came in 1929, when he wrote a paper titled “A reflection on the distance and radial velocity among extra-galactic nebulae,” which shattered the scientific model held by nearly everyone at the time that the universe is static. General Relativity, as Einstein originally formulated it, could not support a static universe, but only allowed for universes that either collapse or expand. Einstein added a fudge-factor to his model, called the cosmological constant, which was a fictitious repulsive force that counter-balanced gravity and forced the model to be static.

Recall that Vesto Slipher had examined shifting star spectra as early as 1910, finding that the extra-galactic nebulae moved rapidly, either towards or away from our own Milky Way. Slipher’s 24-inch telescope limited the distances he could observe. With the great 100-inch reflector Hubble observed the redshifts for many galaxies, and he calibrated their distance using Cepheids. He found that although spectra of nearby nebulae may be slightly red-shifted or blue-shifted, this is only a local effect. As you go farther away, the nebulae all become red-shifted, with the recession velocity increasing linearly with distance, resulting in the now well-known “Hubble’s Law”. These observations suggested that the universe was expanding, thereby demolishing the steady state theory and setting the cornerstone of what would be known as the grand creation event, first termed the “big bang theory” by the astronomer Fred Hoyle in 1950.

Einstein became fully convinced of the accuracy of Hubble’s work and repudiated his introduction of the cosmological fudge-factor, calling this “the worse blunder of his career.” Having been proclaimed as the man who changed Einstein’s mind Hubble was thrust in the media spotlight. A poem in the British humor magazine “Punch” in 1931 sums up the public mood.

Unmoved by spatial swerving
Or arbitrary views
Which others find unnerving
He turns to spectral clues
And from his magic casement
Constant for red displacement
Predicts the near effacement
Of Bolshevistic hues.

When Jeans grows too didactic
Or Friedman makes too free
Among extra-galactic
Clusters of nebulae
When life is full of trouble
And mostly froth and bubble
I turn to Dr. Hubble
He is the man for me

Hubble relished the spotlight. He became acquainted with many of the Hollywood elite, including William Randolph Hearst, Charley Chapman, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Helen Hays, Ethyl Barrymore, and others. He was the special guest of Frank Capra at the Academy Awards. He became very good friends with the screenwriter Aldous Huxley, known for Brave New World and the screenplay for “Gone With the Wind.” He received many honors, such as being the youngest person inducted in the National Academy of Sciences and received an honorary Doctorate from Oxford. He traveled to England to give the prestigious Halley lecture. He also gave the Silliman lectures at Yale and the Rhodes Memorial Lectures, which resulted in his two books, “The Realm of the Nebulae” and “The Observational Approach to Astronomy.”

During World War II Hubble was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Grounds as head of ballistic research, which was done on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay. After the war he returned to California and worked with the new 200-inch reflector at Mount Palomar enlisting an able student, Allan Sandage, who performed much of the work for him after his heart attack in July 1949. Edwin Hubble died on September 28, 1953 of a cerebral thrombosis.

Hubble will best be remembered for his calculations of the distance to Andromeda, setting new scales of the universe, for his classification scheme for the galaxies, and for his discovery of the expansion of the universe. The city of Wheaton, Illinois honored Hubble in 1992 when Wheaton Central High School, my Alma Mater, became Hubble Middle School, named in his honor. For more information on the life of Edwin Hubble read the excellent biography “Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae” by Gale E. Christianson.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.