Edwin Powell Hubble: November 20, 1889–September 28, 1953


Edwin Powell Hubble was an American astronomer who played a crucial role in establishing the fields of extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology.

Hubble proved that many objects previously thought to be clouds of dust and gas and classified as “nebulae” were in fact actually distant galaxies beyond the Milky Way. He used the strong direct relationship between a classical Cepheid variable’s luminosity and pulsation period (discovered in 1908 by Henrietta Swan Leavitt) for scaling galactic and extragalactic distances.

Hubble provided evidence that the recessional velocity of a galaxy increases with its distance from Earth, a property now known as Hubble’s Law, although it had been proposed two years earlier by Georges Lemaître. Hubble’s Law implies that the universe is always in a constant state of expansion. A decade before, the American astronomer Vesto Slipher had provided the first evidence that the light from many of these nebulae was strongly red-shifted, indicative of high recession velocities.

Hubble’s name is now most widely recognized for the Hubble Space Telescope, which was named in his honor, with a life sized model prominently on display in his hometown of Marshfield, Missouri.

Edwin Hubble was born to Virginia Lee Hubble (née James) (1864–1934) and John Powell Hubble, an insurance executive, in Marshfield, Missouri. His family moved to Wheaton, Illinois in 1900. In his younger days, Hubble was noted more for his athletic prowess than his intellectual abilities, although he did earn good grades in every subject except spelling. Edwin was a gifted athlete, playing baseball, football and running track in both high school and college. He won seven first places and a third place in a single high school track and field meet in 1906; and he played a variety of positions on the basketball court from center to shooting guard. Hubble led the University of Chicago’s basketball team to their first Big Ten Conference title in 1907.

Hubble’s studies at the University of Chicago were primarily concentrated on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, which resulted in a bachelor of science degree in 1910. For a year he was also a student laboratory assistant for the physicist Robert Millikan, a future Nobel Prize winner. Hubble also became a member of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity. and was also a Rhodes Scholar. He spent three years at The Queen’s College, Oxford studying jurisprudence instead of science (as a promise to his dying father), and later added studies in literature and Spanish, eventually earning his master’s degree.

In 1909, Hubble’s father moved his family from Chicago to Shelbyville, Kentucky, so they could live in a small town, ultimately settling in nearby Louisville. His father died in the winter of 1913 while Edwin was still in England. The following summer, Edwin returned home to care for his mother, two sisters and younger brother, along with his brother William. The family moved once again to Everett Avenue, in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood in order to accommodate Edwin and William.

Hubble was a dutiful son who despite his intense interest in astronomy since boyhood, acquiesced to his father’s request to study law, first at the University of Chicago and later at Oxford. During this time, he also took some math and science courses. After the death of his father in 1913, Edwin returned to the Midwest from Oxford but did not have any motivation to practice law. Instead, he taught Spanish, physics and mathematics at New Albany High School in New Albany, Indiana, where he also coached the boys’ basketball team. After a year of high-school teaching, he entered graduate school with the help of his former professor from the University of Chicago to study astronomy at the university’s Yerkes Observatory, where he received his Ph.D. in 1921. His dissertation was entitled “Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae.” At Yerkes, he had access to one of the most powerful telescopes in the world at the time, which had an innovative 26 inch reflector.

After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Hubble rushed to complete his Ph.D. dissertation so he could join the military. Hubble volunteered for the United States Army and was assigned to the newly created 86th Division, where he served in 2nd Battalion, 343 Infantry Regiment. He rose to the rank of Major and was found fit for overseas duty on July 9, 1918 However, the 86th Division never saw combat. After the end of World War I, Hubble spent a year at Cambridge University, where he renewed his studies of astronomy.

In 1919, Hubble was offered a staff position at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California. Hubble would remain there on staff at Mount Wilson until his death in 1953. Shortly before his death, Hubble became the first astronomer to use the newly completed giant 200-inch reflector Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California.

Hubble also worked as a civilian for U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland during World War II as the Chief of the External Ballistics Branch of the Ballistics Research Laboratory during which he directed a large volume of research in exterior ballistics which increased the effective firepower of bombs and projectiles. His work was facilitated by his personal development of several items of equipment for the instrumentation used in exterior ballistics; his most outstanding development being the high-speed clock camera, which made possible the study of the characteristics of bombs and low-velocity projectiles in flight. The results of his studies were credited with greatly improving design, performance and military effectiveness of bombs and rockets during the war effort. For his work there, he received the Legion of Merit award.

Edwin Hubble’s arrival at the Mount Wilson Observatory, California in 1919 coincided roughly with the completion of the 100-inch Hooker Telescope, then the world’s largest. At that time, the prevailing view of the cosmos was that the universe consisted entirely of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Hubble married Grace Lillian (Burke) Leib (1889–1980), daughter of John Patrick and Luella (Kepford) Burke, on February 26, 1924.

Hubble was raised as a Protestant Christian but some of his later statements suggest uncertainty in his faith.

Using the Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson, Hubble identified Cepheid variables, standard candle. Hubble located Cepheids in several nebulae, including the Andromeda Nebula and Triangulum Nebula. His observations, made in 1924, proved conclusively that these nebulae were much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and were, in fact, entire galaxies outside our own. Thus, today they are no longer considered nebulae.

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This was first hypothesized as early as 1755 when Immanuel Kant’s General History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens was published. This hypothesis was opposed by many in the astronomy establishment of the time. Despite the opposition, Hubble, then a thirty-five-year-old scientist, had his findings first published in The New York Times on November 23, 1924, then presented them to other astronomers at the January 1, 1925, meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Hubble’s results for Andromeda were not formally published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal until 1929. Hubble’s findings fundamentally changed the scientific view of the universe.

Hubble also devised the most commonly used system for classifying galaxies, grouping them according to their appearance in photographic images. He arranged the different groups of galaxies in what became known as the Hubble Sequence. Hubble went on to estimate the distances to 24 extra-galactic nebulae, using a variety of methods. 

In 1929, Hubble examined the relationship between these distances and their radial velocities as determined from their redshifts. Today, the “apparent velocities” in question are usually thought of as an increase in proper distance that occurs due to the expansion of the universe. Light traveling through an expanding metric will experience a Hubble-type redshift,  a mechanism somewhat different from the Doppler Effect.

In the 1930s, Hubble was involved in determining the distribution of galaxies and spatial curvature. These data seemed to indicate that the universe was flat and homogeneous, but there was a deviation from the flatness at large redshifts.

Hubble also discovered the asteroid 1373 Cincinnati on August 30, 1935. In 1936 he wrote The Observational Approach to Cosmology and The Realm of the Nebulae which explained his approaches to extra-galactic astronomy and his view of the subject’s history.

Hubble had a heart attack in July 1949 while on vacation in Colorado. He was cared for by his wife and continued on a modified diet and work schedule. He died of cerebral thrombosis (a blood clot in his brain) on September 28, 1953, in San Marino, California.

Hubble had told his wife Grace that when he died, that he wanted to “disappear quietly.” Honoring his wishes, Grace had Edwin cremated and there was no funeral or memorial service. Hubble’s ashes were buried in an unmarked location known only to Grace and four other people. No funeral was ever held for him and his wife never revealed his burial site.

Hubble’s papers comprising the bulk of his correspondence, photographs, notebooks, observing logbooks and other materials, are held by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. They were donated by his wife Grace Burke Hubble upon her death in 1980.

On March 6, 2008, the United States Postal Service released a 41-cent stamp honoring Hubble on a sheet titled “American Scientists” designed by artist Victor Stabin. His citation reads:

Often called a “pioneer of the distant stars,” astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889–1953) played a pivotal role in deciphering the vast and complex nature of the universe. His meticulous studies of spiral nebulae proved the existence of galaxies other than our own Milky Way. Had he not died suddenly in 1953, Hubble would have won that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

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