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by William H. Benson

April 28, 2011

     Edwin Hubble was born in a small town in Missouri but grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. Even though he excelled at athletics after the turn of the century, and was exceedingly intelligent, he frequently embellished his astonishing list of  accomplishments, adding more glory than was actually there. Bill Bryson, the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything said that “Hubble was an inveterate liar.”

     He claimed a series of deeds that never happened: “rescuing drowning swimmers, leading frightened men to safety across the battlefields of France, and embarrassing world-champion boxers with knockdown punches in exhibitions bouts.” He also claimed he had practiced law for a decade, when he had actually taught school and coached basketball at that time, and then for only a year.

     What is interesting is that Hubble had no reason to lie in order to enhance his extraordinary achievements. In high school at a single track meet in 1906, “he won the pole vault, shot put, discus, hammer throw, standing high jump, and running high jump, and was on the winning mile-relay team; seven first places in one meet, and then he placed third in the broad jump.” And this was all true.

     Eventually, he won a doctorate in physics, found a position at the Mount Wilson Observatory close to Los Angeles, and on January 1, 1925 announced a spectacular discovery. What appeared to be a distant cloud of gasses was actually another galaxy, a cluster of stars, and that it was located an enormous distance from our own galaxy. At that time it was believed that the Milky Way Galaxy, of which Earth and the solar system belongs, was all there was.

     Suddenly the universe, the entire cosmos was bigger, far bigger than initially believed. Bryson said that “Astronomers today believe there are perhaps 140 billion galaxies in the visible universe.”

     Hubble further discovered that these galaxies, or “island universes,” are accelerating outward, away from a central point, proving the theory that the universe is expanding, rather than contracting or even static. He further demonstrated that those further away are moving faster than those that are closer.

     Another astronomer named Georges Lemaitre considered Hubble’s observations and concluded that if that was all true, then “the universe began as a geometrical point, a ‘primeval atom,’ which burst into glory and had been moving apart ever since.” In a word, the Big Bang Theory.

     On April 12, 1990, the space shuttle, the Discovery, blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and days later, on April 25, astronauts placed into a low orbit the Hubble Telescope, twenty-five years ago this week, named for Edwin Hubble.

     The Hubble is cylindrical-shaped, 7 feet and 10 inches in diameter, and 189 feet long. It was believed that the resolution would be 7 to 10 times greater because it would not be hampered by the distortion from Earth’s atmosphere and the absence of background light.

     However, it was discovered that the lenses had been grounded incorrectly. Three and a half years later though, in late 1993, astronauts replaced the faulty lenses, and since then, the Hubble Telescope has taken more than a half-million images of our universe.

     In 1994 the Hubble recorded a series of comets striking the planet Jupiter, “which produced Earth-sized plumes of vaporized debris in the giant planet’s atmosphere.” Astronomers have trained the telescope towards regions where stars are being born and then towards other regions where the stars are dying. In the year 1054 A.D. Earth’s inhabitants witnessed the explosion of a supernova. The Hubble has now peered deep into that supernova’s remains, into what is called the Crab Nebula.

     One of the most astonishing things requested of the Hubble was the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image. Between September 24, 2003 and January 16, 2004, for a total of 268 hours, the telescope was aimed toward what seemed a blank spot in the sky and recorded thousands of images. What those images  revealed was an abundance of distant galaxies, perhaps ten thousand, located in the deepest optical view ever made of the early universe.

     Unfortunately, Edwin Hubble missed all these eye-popping views of our solar system, of supernovas, and of newly-discovered galaxies in Hubble Ultra Deep Field, for he suffered a cerebral thrombosis on September 28, 1953, and passed away at the age of sixty-three. What is most unusual is that his wife refused to identify what she did with his remains and where, or even if, she buried him.

     Despite his penchant for elaborating his achievements, Edwin Hubble is considered the greatest astronomer of the twentieth century, and for that reason astronomers attached his name to the orbiting telescope that hovers miles above our heads.