Earth and Space

Hubble’s trouble

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 IOP RESOURCES

Edwin Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889 and grew up near Chicago. A story reports that Hubble’s high school principal approached him at his graduation and said, “Edwin Hubble, I have watched you for four years and I have never seen you study for ten minutes.” The teacher is said to have paused and then continued, “Here is a scholarship to the University of Chicago.” Some biographers have suggested that Hubble was a compulsive liar who made up stories of bravery and athletic prowess.

Nonetheless, the scientist has an impressive record of achievement and stories about him abound:

  • Whilst at the University of Chicago, Hubble excelled as a boxer. A promoter was eager to set up a fight between the physicist and Jack Johnson, the then world champion, but Hubble declined the offer.
  •  During the First World War, Hubble served in the army and was knocked unconscious by the blast of an exploding shell whilst in an observation balloon. As a consequence of the explosion, he could never fully straighten his right elbow.
  •  Hubble was selected to be one of the first Rhodes Scholars and returned to America from Oxford with an affected British accent, which he is reported to have maintained for the rest of his life.
  •  Hubble was a competitive academic. Despite, or perhaps because of, his celebrity status, he is reported as showing an ‘ungenerous’ and ‘vindictive’ attitude towards colleagues. When his work on galactic classification was scooped by the Swede Knut Lundmark, he wrote to the scientist to express his feelings:

    This is a very mild expression of my personal opinion of your conduct and unless you can explain in some unexpected manner, I shall take considerable pleasure in calling constant and emphatic attention, whenever the occasion is given, to your curious idea of ethics.

    Hubble’s response is somewhat hypocritical given that, in 1927 Lemaître (see page 16) published a version of what is now referred to as Hubble’s law, pre-empting the American astronomer by two years but attracting little notice. It has been speculated that, when Lemaître’s version of the recession law was translated into English for publication, Hubble, or someone sympathetic to him, deliberately mistranslated the paper to minimise Lemaître’s claim to prior discovery. In 2018, the International Astronomical Union recommended that the law now be known as the Hubble–Lemaître law.

  •  Following his death, Hubble’s wife did not want to hold a funeral for her husband and never revealed what happened to his body


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