Edwin Hubble Expands Our View of the Universe

by Donna Weaver and Ann Jenkins

American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble (1889–1953) never lived to see the development or launch of his namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope. But like the telescope that bears his name, Dr. Hubble played a crucial role in advancing the field of astronomy and changing the way we view the universe. As Hubble’s namesake is breaking new ground in the exploration of the distant universe via the Frontier Fields, let us take a step back and learn more about Hubble, the man.

This is an illustration of Dr. Edwin Powell Hubble.

Edwin Hubble is regarded as one of the most important observational cosmologists of the 20th century. Illustration credit: Kathy Cordes of STScI.

As a young boy, Edwin Hubble read tales of traveling to undersea cities, journeying to the center of the Earth, and trekking to the remote mountains of South Africa. These stories by adventure novelists Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard stoked young Hubble’s imagination of faraway places. He fulfilled those childhood dreams as an astronomer, exploring distant galaxies with a telescope and developing celestial theories that revolutionized astronomy.

But Hubble didn’t settle immediately on the astronomy profession. He studied law as a Rhodes Scholar at Queens College in Oxford, England. A year after passing the bar exam, Hubble realized that his love of exploring the stars was greater than his attraction to law, so he abandoned law for astronomy. “I chucked the law for astronomy and I knew that, even if I were second rate or third rate, it was astronomy that mattered,” Hubble said. (1)

Our Galaxy Is Not Alone

He studied astronomy at the University of Chicago and completed his doctoral thesis in 1917. After serving in World War I, he began working at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, Calif., studying the faint patches of luminous “fog” or nebulae — the Latin word for clouds — in the night sky. Hubble and other astronomers were puzzled by these gas clouds and wanted to know what they were.

Using the 100-inch reflecting Hooker Telescope — the largest telescope of its day — Hubble peered beyond our Milky Way Galaxy to study an object known then as the Andromeda Nebula. He discovered special, “variable stars” on the outskirts of the nebula that changed in brightness over time. These stars brightened and dimmed in a predictable way that allowed Hubble to determine their distances from Earth. Hubble showed that the distance to the nebula was so great that it had to be outside the Milky Way Galaxy. Hubble realized that the Andromeda Nebula was a separate galaxy much like our own. The discovery of the Andromeda Galaxy helped change our understanding of the universe by proving the existence of other galaxies.

Hubble also devised the classification system for galaxies, grouping them by sizes and shapes, that astronomers still use today. He also obtained extensive evidence that the laws of physics outside our galaxy are the same as on Earth, verifying the principle of the uniformity of nature.

The Expanding Universe

As Hubble continued his study, he made another startling discovery: The universe is expanding. In 1929 he determined that the more distant the galaxy is from Earth, the faster it appears to move away. Known as Hubble’s Law, this discovery is the foundation of the Big Bang theory. The theory says that the universe began after a huge cosmic explosion and has been expanding ever since. Hubble’s discovery is considered one of the greatest triumphs of 20th-century astronomy.

Albert Einstein could have foretold Hubble’s discovery in 1917 when he applied his newly developed General Theory of Relativity to the universe. His theory — that space is curved by gravity — predicted that the universe could not be static but had to expand or contract. Einstein found this prediction so unbelievable that he modified his original theory to avoid the problem. Upon learning of Hubble’s discovery, Einstein immediately regretted revising his theory.

For his many contributions to astronomy, Hubble is regarded as one of the most important observational cosmologists of the 20th century.

(1) As quoted by Nicholas U. Mayall (1970). Biographical memoir. Volume 41, Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.). National Academy of Sciences. p. 179.