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Hubble Space Telescope Banner

picture of Edwin Powell Hubble looking though a large telescope

EDWIN POWELL HUBBLE

November 20, l889-September 28, 1953
from an article by N.U. Mayall in BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS NAS 41

Edwin Hubble, by his inspired use of the largest telescope of his time, the 100 inch reflector on the Mount Wilson Observatory, revolutionized our knowledge of the size, structure, and properties of the universe. Hubble 's observations proved that galaxies are 'island universes". Hubble also outlined a classification system for galaxies that is still in use. His greatest discovery was the linear relationship between a galaxy's distance and the speed with which it is moving, known as the Hubble Constant.

Edwin's mother was Virginia Lee James, from Virginia City, Nevada, and his father was John Powell Hubble, from Missouri, where Edwin himself was born in Marshfield on Novemeber 20, l889, during a visit to his grandparents.

He liked and read many books, such as novels by Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, especially"King Solomon's Mines". His father was affiliated with an insurance company; he had his office in Chicago and settled his family in surburban Wheaton.

Young Edwin corresponded with his grandfather, who once wrote to his twelve-year-old grandson to ask some questions abaout Mars. The reply so pleased the grandfather that he had it printed in a Springfield newspaper.

Like many youngsters, Edwin earned his first money by delivering morning papers in Wheaton. At Wheaton High School he participated actively in athletics, with football as his favorite game, although he also entered many track events. On his high school commencement day in l906, the principal said, "Edwin Hubble, I have watched for four years and I have never seen you study for ten minutes." He then paused for what was an awful moment for Edwin, and continued, "Here is a scholarship to the University of Chicago."

By mistake, this high school scholarship was also awarded to another student, thus the money had to be halved, and Hubble had to supply the rest. He paid his expenses by tutoring, by working summer jobs, by working as a laboratory assistant to Robert Millikan and with a scholarship in physics. He received a college letter in athletics for his participation in track, boxing, and basketball.

In l910 Hubble received his B.S. degree from the University of Chicago, and in the same year was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, under which he read Roman and English Law at Queens College, Oxford. Some years later he was made an Honorary Fellow of Queen's College. He returned to the United States in l913, passed the bar examination September 2, and practiced law halfheartedly for a year thereafter in Louisville, Kentucky. He reported that at this time he "chucked the law for astronomy, and I knew that even if I were second-rate or third-rate, it was astronomy that mattered." Thus in l914 he returned to the University of Chicago for postgraduate work leading to his doctoral degree in astronomy.

While finishing work for his doctorate early in l9l7, Hubble was invited by Hale to join the staff of the Mount Wilson Observatory, Pasadena, California. Although this was one of the greatest of astornomical opportunities, it came in April of that fateful year (World War I). After sitting up all night to finish his Ph.D. thesis, and taking the oral examiniation the next morning, Hubble enlisted in the infantry and telegraphed Hale, "Regret cannot accept your invitation. Am off to the war."

Hubble was commissioned a captain in the 343d Infantry, 86th Division and later became a major. He was sent to France where he served as a field and line officer. He returned to the United States in the summer of l9l9, was mustered out in San Francisco, and went immediately to Pasadena, California, Mount Wilson Observatory.

On February 26, l924, Edwin Hubble and Grace Burke were married in Pasadena, California. Mrs. Hubble recalls that the first description of her future husband was given to her by W.H. Wright, at that time Astronomer in the Lick Observatory. "He is a hard worker," he said, "he wants to find out about the universe; that shows how young he is."

Hubble worked at the Mount Wilson Obervatory until the summer of 1942, when he left to do war work at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. For his valuable service to his country during the war he was awarded the Medal of Merit in 1946.

After World War II Hubble returned to his position at the Mount Wilson Observatory where his research, so brilliantly carried out between two world wars, had provided strong evidence of the need for a telescope larger than the 100-inch reflector. He had assisted greatly in the design of the 200-inch Hale telescope, and had served on the Mount Wilson Observatory Advisory Committee for building the Mount Palomar Observatory. "With the 200-inch," he said in a BBC broadcast in London," we may grasp what now we can scarcely brush with our fingertips." "What do you expect to find with the 200-inch?" he was asked, and he replied, "We hope to find something we hadn't expected."

Hubble continued his research at the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, where he was active until his death, from a cerebral thrombosis, September 28, l953.

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