The Day We Found the Universe - Marcia Bartusiak (2009)


Chapter 11. Adonis

From the mile-high summit of Mount Wilson, you can look a dozen miles to the southwest, across a wide valley, and catch sight of Hollywood and its lower-lying hills. The movie studios situated there in the 1920s were rapidly growing in allure and generating their mythic aura. This enchanted atmosphere must have somehow wafted over to the San Gabriel Mountains, for the man who eventually solved the mystery of the spiral nebulae looked as if he had come straight out of central casting.

In the eyes of his friends Edwin Hubble was an “Adonis,” a tall and robust figure with compelling hazel eyes, a cleft chin, and wavy brown hair that glinted of reddish gold. Pronounced cheekbones cast attractive shadows in his photographs, lending his face a movie-star look. A woman screenwriter considered him too handsome for his occupation, comparing him to box-office idol Clark Gable. “Had we been casting [the role of a scientist] at M.G.M., Edwin Hubble would have been turned down as ‘unrealistic,’” said Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Raised in a solid middle-class household, Hubble somewhere along the line acquired a profound yearning to be singular and distinct. Fiercely determined to rise in the ranks, he reinvented himself upon reaching adulthood—adopting a British accent, dressing like a dandy, and adding dubious credentials to his curriculum vitae. The young man was seemingly intent on burying the most boring aspects of his midwestern family heritage and over time crafted a persona as big as the silver screen. By marrying into a wealthy southern California family, Hubble attained many of his lofty social and financial goals, and his wife, Grace, became his accomplice. She idolized her husband and, long after his death, propagated the legend he established, of which numerous details were highly edited or demonstrably wrong. She put him on a pedestal. And the longer time went on, said astronomer Nicholas Mayall, who had once worked with Hubble, the higher the pedestal got. Hubble's discovering the modern universe didn't seem to be glory enough.

Born on November 20, 1889, in Marshfield, Missouri, Hubble was the third of seven surviving children and christened Edwin Powell, although he generally avoided using his middle name or initial. His father, John, who grew up in Missouri, was trained in the law but earned a living working in his family's insurance business. When not traveling, he ruled his domestic realm with a firm puritanical hand, a strictness that was balanced by the more forgiving and accessible mother, Virginia Lee (“Jennie”) James, daughter of a local physician.

It was in Missouri, the “Show Me” state, that Hubble began his love affair with the heavens. His maternal grandfather, William James (a distant relation to the famous outlaw Jesse James), had built a telescope, and as a present on his eighth birthday young Edwin was permitted to stay up past his bedtime and use it to peruse the pinpoints of light, sparkling like brilliant gems, in the nighttime sky. The impression made on him that pitch-black winter evening, the starry wonders he beheld, lasted a lifetime. Two years later his family moved to the Chicago area, eventually settling in the village of Wheaton, Illinois, just west of the city. In high school Ed, as he was known to his friends, blossomed, regularly maintaining an A average and excelling in track, football, and basketball. The two areas in which he was downgraded a few times came in “application” and “deportment,” as he wasn't afraid to argue with his teachers in class. With his peers, he remained aloof and at times arrogant—both a dreamer and schemer. “He always seemed to be looking for an audience to which he could expound some theory or other,” recalled a childhood friend. Two years younger than most of his classmates, he may have been putting on a knowing front to appear older and more self-assured.

Graduating in 1906 at the age of sixteen, Hubble was awarded a scholarship to the University of Chicago, partly due to his superb athletic skills. But what he would major in became a contentious issue. Never forgetting his childhood experience with his grandfather's telescope, Hubble earnestly desired to study astronomy, but his father, a practical man, wanted his son to take up the law. According to one of Hubble's sisters, John Hubble considered being an astronomer an “outlandish” career choice. Hubble compromised by taking science classes—mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology—as well as the prerequisite courses in the classics, including heavy doses of Greek and Latin, that would prepare him for a legal career.

In regard to learning science, the timing for Hubble was perfect. Though a relatively new institution, the University of Chicago had already attracted two top physicists, Albert Michelson and Robert Millikan, who would go on to receive Nobel Prizes for their seminal work. And the Yerkes Observatory, affiliated with the university, offered one of the best telescopes then in existence. The early 1900s was a time, Hubble later recalled, when the world was astir: “Motor cars, at last, were successfully competing with horses. Airplanes were trying their wings. Bleriot had just flown the English channel, and…the wireless was groping its way over the map. Marconi…transmitted a message from Ireland to Buenos Aires, 6000 miles away… Technology strides across the modern stage like some gigantic, streamlined god.”

Edwin Hubble (left) in 1909 with a teammate on the
University of Chicago track team (Reproduced by permission
of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

Hubble inhaled the charged air of this exhilarating era deeply. A classmate described him as being a “whiz” at calculus, who “often utterly dumfounded” the professor. By the end of his sophomore year he was singled out as the best physics student. He also participated in track (though seldom winning) but did better in basketball, as his exceptional height for the day (six feet two inches) gave him an advantage playing center. He and his teammates were national champions in 1909. Moreover, Hubble did some boxing at an off-campus gym, becoming so good as an amateur heavyweight that Chicago promoters were eager for him to turn professional (or so he claimed). Such diverse activities and coursework may have been all part of a plan, for early on he had set his sights on obtaining a Rhodes Scholarship. Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist who made his fortune mining South African diamonds, had set up the program to strengthen the relationship between Great Britain and the United States. Every year, in each state, a young man was chosen to attend Oxford University in England for postgraduate studies. In his will Rhodes stipulated that Rhodes scholars should be bachelors between nineteen and twenty-five, good in academics but not “mere bookworms.” Each was to be a manly chap, exhibiting a “moral force of character” and proficient in both athletics and leadership. Hubble made sure that his accomplishments in college covered all the bases. In his senior year, he even served as vice president of his class, a position he acquired with ease as he shrewdly knew he would be running unopposed.

After passing the initial Rhodes examination, Hubble became one of the two finalists in Illinois. He may have won the slot once the judging committee saw the glowing letter of recommendation written by Millikan. Hubble had served as a laboratory assistant in Millikan's elementary physics course at the University of Chicago. To Millikan, Hubble was a “man of magnificent physique, admirable scholarship, and worthy and lovable character…. I have seldom known a man who seemed to be better qualified to meet the conditions imposed by the founder of the Rhodes scholarship than is Mr. Hubble.”

Hubble arrived at Oxford in October 1910, living for the next three years on an annual stipend of fifteen hundred dollars. There he walked the very halls where Edmond Halley once strode and joined a cozy club of privileged young men from England's wealthiest families, who were training for select positions in the military, banking, industry, government, and diplomatic services. With continued pressure from both his father and grandfather, Hubble dutifully studied the law and completed the jurisprudence coursework in two years instead of the usual three. He received second-class honors. But, always in the background, astronomy beckoned. He couldn't let it go, so deep was his passion for the celestial specialty. Sensing it would create a ruckus, he didn't let his parents know that he was cozying up to Oxford's top astronomer, Herbert Turner, visiting his home several times.

A Rhodes official jotted in Hubble's record that he showed “considerable ability. Manly. Did quite well here. I didn't care v[ery] much for his manner—but he was better than his manner. Will get A.” His “manner” had become decidedly British, but in an exaggerated, almost cartoonish way. It was during his Oxford sojourn when Hubble underwent his bewildering metamorphosis, adopting a distinct style that he maintained for the rest of his life. Becoming a full-fledged (some might say rabid) Anglophile, Hubble began to regularly speak with an upper-crust accent, smoke a pipe, brew a proper cup of tea, and wear a black cape with great flourish. Some were not impressed, including Rhodes scholar Warren Ault, who believed that Oxford “had transformed [Hubble], seemingly, into a phony Englishman, as phony as his accent.”

This theatrical transformation clearly signaled that Hubble was desperately in search of an identity, as well as a profession in which he could make a lasting mark. In his third year at Oxford he chose to specialize in Spanish, a respite from his grueling law curriculum. “I sometimes feel that there is within me, to do what the average man would not do,” Hubble had earlier written his mother, “if only I find some principle, for whose sake I could leave everything else and devote my life.” His ambition was unmistakable. When a classmate declared he'd rather be first in the provinces than second in Rome, Hubble snappily replied, “Why not be first in Rome?”

In January 1913, Hubble's father died, after years of fighting nephritis, a disease of the kidney. When first hearing of his father's declining health, Hubble had wanted to return home, but his father ordered him to stay. Though a devastating event to any child, his father's passing was in many ways a liberation for the Rhodes scholar. He was no longer shackled by the career path preordained by his stern father, although a full emancipation took some time. Upon finishing his studies in Great Britain at the end of May, Hubble first returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where his widowed mother and siblings were now settled, to help out his family and figure out what he would do next.

When writing about this point of his life, right after his return from Oxford, Hubble's early biographers uniformly noted that he soon passed the Kentucky bar examination and briefly practiced law in Louisville. That was the story that Hubble told everyone, and it became the standard line for all of his life and several decades afterward. But in truth he did neither. According to a later biographer, Gale Christianson, the closest Hubble came to a legal career was translating what may have been legal correspondence for a Louisville import company conducting business in South America. There is no evidence whatsoever that Hubble handled a professional legal case, despite what he wrote his chums back in England. Hubble was adding more mythic gloss to his résumé. All this time he was actually teaching at the high school in New Albany, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville. For a year he taught physics, mathematics, and Spanish—an experience he never openly discussed later, even though his students were obviously fond of him. After Hubble coached their basketball team to an undefeated season and a third-place finish in the state tournament, they lovingly dedicated the school's 1914 yearbook to him.

High school teaching, though, hardly satisfied Hubble's steadfast hunger for a more illustrious career. He would come to see the fellow Rhodes scholars in his group become respected journalists, authors, poets, and congressmen. He yearned to match their potential in the field of science. “So I chucked the law,” Hubble later reminisced, maintaining the fiction of having had a legal career, “and went back to astronomy and the test was this—I knew it was astronomy that mattered and that I would be happy in astronomy if I turned out to be second-rate or third-rate.”

Earliest known photo of Edwin Hubble with a telescope. Taken in 1914
in New Albany, Indiana, upon his return from Oxford. (Reproduced by
permission of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

With his father's daunting presence no longer an obstacle to his long-standing aspiration, Hubble contacted his favorite astronomy professor at Chicago, Forest Ray Moulton, to inquire about returning for graduate studies. Moulton wrote a glowing letter of recommendation to Edwin Frost, then director of the Yerkes Observatory. Hubble, said Moulton, was a “splendid specimen,” who showed “exceptional ability” in science. Frost promptly took him on, offering a scholarship that covered his $120 tuition and provided $30 a month for basic living expenses.

Frost, who hailed from New England, had joined the staff of Yerkes just months after it first opened in 1897, chosen by Hale to be its first professor of astrophysics. He was best known for his measurements of the radial velocities of the stars (how fast they were moving either toward or away from the Earth) and also served as managing editor of the Astrophysical Journal. One day he received a telegraph from a reporter with a plea: “Send us three hundred words expressing your ideas on the habit-ability of Mars.” A man of good humor, Frost replied, “Three hundred words unnecessary—three enough—no one knows.”

As director, Frost divided the nights at Yerkes, with astronomers working only the first or second half, so they could get some sleep. Certain hours were given over to spectroscopic work, other hours for determining the distances to the stars. In the remaining hours, the observers would carry out such tasks as photometric studies—determining the brightness of stars—or visually observing interesting objects, such as double stars.

In the winter temperatures at Yerkes could reach 15° to 20° F below zero, yet the dome couldn't be warmed as the temperature had to closely match that of the outside. Otherwise, currents of warm air rising in front of the lens would spoil the resolution of the celestial objects in the telescope's sight. “Those who have visited a large observatory on such a night,” Frost recalled, “say that they will never forget that cold eerie place, silent except for the persistent ghostly ticking of the driving clock and the wind howling around the slit in the dome. But there the astronomer sits in his Eskimo suit or fur coat and cap with his eye glued to the eyepiece of the telescope, watching closely to see that his star does not drift away from the crossed spider-threads which mark the center of his field while a plate is being exposed.”

Occasionally visitors were invited to look through the telescope. A favorite target was a dazzling cluster of stars in the constellation Hercules. One man, upon viewing the great cluster, remarked to Frost right before the 1908 presidential election, “So you say that each of those points of light is a sun and each one is larger than ours. And you allege that this cluster is so far away that the light requires thirty thousand to forty thousand years to reach us? Well”—with a sigh—“if this is so, I guess that it doesn't really matter whether Bryan or Taft is elected.”

Graduate work in astronomy at the University of Chicago was primarily carried out right on the premises, at the observatory itself. When Yerkes first opened, it was one of the foremost observatories of its time. But when Hale, its founder, moved to California to build his even greater astronomical establishment atop Mount Wilson, taking with him the cream of Yerkes' observers, only the older astronomers whose creative years were long over or the second tier stayed behind. Frost himself was slowly losing his eyesight due to cataracts and could no longer observe, the ultimate tragedy for an astronomer. With a few exceptions, most students who completed their PhD at Yerkes around this time made no major contributions to astronomy. Hubble, though, did not let Yerkes' declining fortunes deter him.

Right before starting at Yerkes in the fall of 1914, Hubble attended a meeting of the American Astronomical Society held on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. It was the eventful meeting when Vesto Slipher presented his awe-inspiring results on the speedy velocities of the spiral nebulae, which created such a commotion. Mingling with the great astronomers of the day, Hubble must surely have sensed the importance of Slipher's announcement. Hubble was after astronomical fame (though just inducted into the AAS, he managed to get in the front row for the meeting's group photo) and here was a compelling mystery garnering everyone's attention. It could be that his decision to focus on the nebulae was made that very week, as he joined in the ovation, standing up with the audience, clapping his hands in honor of Slipher's achievement.

As a graduate student, the lowest rung in the observatory hierarchy, Hubble didn't have regular access to Yerkes' grand 40-inch telescope. But, driven and self-reliant, he took advantage of the equipment that was available to him and took over the observatory's 24-inch reflector, then standing idle, a curious situation since it was the same two-footer that George Ritchey had built years earlier to compete with Lick's productive Crossley reflector. Hubble attached a camera to the telescope and proceeded to take pictures of various nebulae. Soon these images became the topic of his doctoral thesis, “Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae.” His first discovery was finding that certain faint nebulae could change. He compared his photographic plate of a nebula called NGC 2261, a comet-shaped cloud of gas, with ones taken earlier at other observatories. His latest photo displayed distinct differences, indicating that the nebula had to be relatively small and close by. (This object, located within the Milky Way, is now known as Hubble's variable nebula.)

In many ways, this endeavor became a trial run for his later work on galaxies. Although Hubble's telescope was small by modern standards, he was able to discern that the faint white nebulae were not all spiral disks (as many then believed); some were also bulbous, what later came to be known as elliptical galaxies. He could also see that many of these nebulae crowded together on the sky. Much as astronomers did in earlier centuries with stars, Hubble was hoping to learn something about nebulae from their distribution over the sky. “Suppose them to be extra-sidereal [outside the Milky Way] and perhaps we see clusters of galaxies,” wrote Hubble about his findings. “Suppose them within our system, their nature becomes a mystery.” He even estimated that if they were separate galaxies, each the size of the Milky Way, they would have to be millions of light-years distant to appear so small.

While seemingly prescient in his speculations, his findings at this point were not terribly revolutionary. Others, like Curtis and Slipher, had already made similar statements. Today astronomers judge Hubble's thesis as not very good technically, as it contains few references to earlier work and offers confusing theoretical ideas. “But it shows clearly the hand of a great scientist groping toward the solution of great problems,” Donald Osterbrock, Ronald Brashear, and Joel Gwinn emphasized in an evaluation of Hubble's work. “Hubble was never an outstanding technical observationalist… but he always had the drive, energy, and enough skill to use available instruments so as to get the most out of them… He recognized the right questions to ask, and he had the self-confidence to see what was on his plates, and describe it, where others who had perhaps seen it before had ignored it, or worse, tried to ignore it, because it did not fit the current pictures of the universe that they had in their minds.”

Hubble was certainly astute enough to realize that his initial research on the nebulae merely scratched the surface. In his thesis he made sure to note that his “questions await their answers for instruments more powerful than those we now possess.” He was already thinking ahead, keenly aware that another place, the Mount Wilson Observatory, in southern California, was swiftly becoming the world's premier astronomical institution, with a record-breaking 100-inch telescope under construction. In turn, Mount Wilson's director, Hale, was similarly aware of Hubble. He had been hearing reports of an exceptional young man at Yerkes who was looking into faint nebulae and, after consulting with University of Chicago professors, he offered Hubble a job, contingent on the successful completion of his doctoral degree.

“I have offered Hubbell [sic] a position with us at $1200. per year,” wrote Hale to Adams, his second in command. “He will talk the question over with Frost in the near future.” Frost had no problem with Hubble leaving Yerkes. In fact, the Yerkes director was probably relieved, for he didn't have the money to offer his graduating student a well-paid position, as he had hoped, and was glad to hear that Hubble had another prospect in hand, and an excellent one at that.

In the course of working toward his degree, Hubble had spent hundreds of hours at his scope, photographing a vast array of nebulae and classifying them. Yet, as published, Hubble's thesis consisted of just nine pages of text, eight pages of tables, and two photographic plates. That it turned out a bit thin was largely due to the unusual circumstances of its final preparation. Hubble had planned to finish up in June 1917, but on April 6 of that year Congress approved President Woodrow Wilson's plea for the United States to enter World War I. Within days Hubble asked Frost for a letter of recommendation to obtain a commission in the army. Upon hearing that officers' training camp was starting in mid-May, Hubble hurriedly submitted the latest draft of his thesis, which he knew was decidedly “scimpy.” On the advice of Frost, he plumped it up a bit by attaching his paper on NGC 2261, his variable nebula. Even then, Frost did not find it suitable for publication in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal and eventually sent it to the lesser Publications of the Yerkes Observatory. War fever obviously allowed Hubble's shakily composed thesis to pass without major rewrites. The young recruit handled himself superbly during his final oral examination, though, and the six-man committee awarded him his doctoral degree magna cum laude. Three days later, on May 15, he reported for duty at Fort Sheridan, a military reservation on Lake Michigan, north of Chicago.

As for his promised position at Mount Wilson, Hubble had already sent a letter to Hale a month earlier telling him of his desire to enter the reserve officers corps and asking how it would affect his job offer. Hale replied it was “natural” to apply for a commission and said he hoped “to renew as soon as you are able to accept it.” Hale even supplied one of Hubble's needed recommendations to enter officer training.

For a year, Hubble's army division stayed in the United States, largely relegated to teaching new recruits. At one point his astronomy background came in handy. His commanding officer requested that he instruct his fellow trainees how to use the stars to guide their nighttime marches. While others joined the artillery and were commissioned as lieutenants, Hubble chose the infantry, where he could enter at a higher rank, as a captain. By September he was put in charge of the 2nd Battalion, 343rd Infantry Regiment of the 86th Division at an Illinois base. “Stirring times,” Hubble wrote a friend from his new camp. “I can't picture myself missing the gathering, as it were, of the clans.”

Commended for his contributions, Hubble was promoted to major, just eight months after he joined. He finally made it to Europe in September 1918, his men reassigned to various divisions to serve as replacements. Hubble was sent to a combat training camp in France, but what exactly happened afterward is debatable (his full military record was destroyed in a fire). Hubble always claimed he saw some action in the trenches and later told his wife that he had been rendered unconscious at one point by a shell exploding nearby and awoke in a field hospital, whereupon he quickly dressed and departed. Nowhere in his discharge papers, though, is there a record of his participation in any battles, engagements, or skirmishes. Beside each listed category, only the word none appears. Furthermore, no “wound chevrons” were authorized for him to put on his uniform. Perhaps his exploits were never precisely documented in the fog of war or possibly Hubble was fastening more adornments to his reinvented self, tall tales that Grace proceeded to faithfully record, with unquestioning belief, in a memoir after his death. What seems most honest and unadorned is what Hubble wrote to Frost right after the war ended: “I barely got under fire.”

With his skill in languages and his expertise in the law, Hubble purportedly took on postwar assignments at the U.S. Army of Occupation headquarters in Germany, the Combat Officers Depot in France, and the American Peace Commission in Paris. Along the way, he learned of a U.S. Army program for officers to study in British universities while awaiting shipment back home. He quickly arranged to be assigned and arrived at Cambridge University in March 1919, along with two hundred other American officers and enlisted men. Like James Keeler, Hubble was a skilled networker and made sure to hobnob with the noted astronomers who were there in Cambridge. Soon he was being proposed for membership in the Royal Astronomical Society. Upon arriving at a posh dinner hosted by the best and the brightest of British astronomy at this time, visitors from Mount Wilson were surprised to see their prospective staff member, junior at that, seated in a place of honor between a noted British physicist and Great Britain's astronomer royal.

By May 1919, worried that his promised job at Mount Wilson might have evaporated given the added delay of his postwar activities, Hubble dashed off a brief note to Hale for reassurance. He reminded Hale, “My interest has for the most part been with nebulae especially photographic study of the fainter ones.” Hale soon replied. “I had been hoping to hear from you,” he wrote, “and am pleased to find that you still wish to come to the Observatory.” Hubble's salary offer rose to $1,500, and Hale promised him rapid advancement, should his work prove worthy. But he urged Hubble to come as soon as possible, “as we expect to get the 100-inch telescope into commission very soon, and there should be abundant opportunity for work by the time you arrive.”

Hubble arrived in New York on August 10. After a one-day stop in Chicago to meet with his mother and sister, who had specially traveled down from their new home in Wisconsin for the brief reunion, he quickly journeyed to California, resplendently attired in uniform and introducing himself around as Major Hubble, a moniker that many people continued to use from that time on. But before showing up at Mount Wilson, just after being discharged in San Francisco, Hubble sent Hale a telegram: “Just demobilized. Will proceed Pasadena at once unless you advise to contrary.” He was either being obsequious or still incredulous that Hale had held the position open for him so long.

The job was assuredly his, and Hubble couldn't have turned up at the Mount Wilson Observatory at a more perfect time. On September 11, 1919, just about a week after his arrival in Pasadena, the great 100-inch telescope came into full use for the staff. It was a moment that observatory director Hale had been anticipating since 1906.