Starry-Eyed Hubble

Good morning, it’s Monday, April 24, 2017. Over the weekend, many thousands of scientists, math geeks, amateur lovers of the cosmos, and assorted political partisans marched in the name of science. Notwithstanding the predictable bashing of President Trump, some of the placards carried by this new cohort of protesters were pretty good. Here are a few of them:

“Make Earth Cool Again”

“Science Makes America Greater”

“There Is No Planet B.”

“I’m With Her” (with a picture of Mother Earth, not Hillary Clinton).

Many of the chants were pretty lame, however, and it wasn’t just because of the rain in Washington. (Underwhelmed by a half-hearted call-and-response of “Science, not silence!” Cathy Butler, a retired engineer from Kennett Square, Pa., told The Washington Post with a sigh, “I get it. We’re scientists and we’re all introverted.”) But one chant was priceless: “Science saves lives! Science protects our planet! Science makes beer!”

Science also makes telescopes and allows us to see the heavens, which I’m reminded of this morning because on this date in 1990, NASA used the space shuttle Discovery to launch the Hubble Space Telescope.

Who was “Hubble” anyway? If that’s a man’s name, what did he do, exactly?

Edwin Powell Hubble was born in 1889 in Marshfield, Missouri and moved with his family, at age 9, to the Chicago area. He graduated from high school in 1906 and was given a partial scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he studied physics, mathematics, and astronomy — while working in a university laboratory to defray the remaining portion of his tuition.

Hubble boxed in college and starred in basketball, and was named a Rhodes scholar after graduation in 1910. His father wanted him to study law, but the young man’s head was literally in the stars.

“I knew that even if I were second or third rate, it was astronomy that mattered,” he explained later. It’s an inspiring thought, but overly modest. The truth is that Edwin Hubble would have succeeded at anything he tried. He nearly did.

He left his law practice in Kentucky to be an educator, excelling as a high school teacher and coach. He returned to the University of Chicago to earn a doctorate in astronomy, however, and before he was finished, Hubble had attracted the attention of George Ellery Hale, the founder of the famous Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California. He accepted an offer to join the staff and was thought to be headed west in the late spring of 1917. Instead, President Wilson committed this nation to World War I, and Edwin Hubble enlisted.

“Regret cannot accept your invitation,” he said in a telegram to Hale. “Am off to the war.”

He returned from France a brevet major, and in 1919 he finally assumed his place on the observatory staff at Mount Wilson.

It was there, while using the powerful Hooker Telescope (and, later, the powerful 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory) that Hubble made a series of observations and conclusions that altered the very field of astronomy. The most famous of these is that there are galaxies other than our own and that the universe is expanding – and doing so at a constant rate. His untimely death in 1953 probably cost him the Nobel Prize, but his contributions have proven lasting. It was only fitting that NASA named its powerful telescope — one as big as a school bus — after him.

“Equipped with his five senses,” Hubble once wrote, “man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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