[Today is actually the day! You may fly your flag if you choose. This is the traditional Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub Hubble Day post.]
Lift a glass of champagne today in tribute to Edwin Hubble and his great discovery. Not sure what to call it — Hubble Day, Looking Up Day, Endless Possibilities Day — whatever, this is the anniversary of Edwin Hubble’s announcement that he had discovered the universe is much, much larger than anyone had imagined, containing far more stars than anyone had dared guess.
It’s a big universe out there.
Ultraviolet image of the Andromeda Galaxy. Wired caption: “Photo: Edwin Hubble’s 1920s observations of Andromeda (whose ultraviolet spectrum is rendered here) expanded our notions of the size and nature of a universe that is itself expanding. Galaxy Evolution Explorer image courtesy NASA.”
So, today is a good day to celebrate the universe in all it’s glory – December 30.
On December 30, 1924, Edwin Hubble announced he’d discovered other galaxies in distant space. Though it may not have been so clear at the time, it meant that, as a galaxy, we are not alone in the universe (whether we are alone as intelligent life is a separate question). It also meant that the universe is much, much bigger than most people had dared to imagine.
90 years ago today.
I keep trying to get people to celebrate.
In 2008 for Hubble Day, Wired picked up on the story (with a gracious link to 2007’s post here at the Bathtub). Wired includes several links to even more information, a good source of information. See Wired’s 2009 post here.
Hubble was the guy who showed us the universe is not only bigger than we imagined, it’s probably much bigger and much more fantastic than we can imagine. (See J. B. S. Haldane’s “queerer” quote.) Hubble is the guy who opened our imaginations to the vastness of all creation.
Hubble’s work would have been impossible without the earlier work of one of the great, unsung women of science, Henrietta Leavitt, as Wired explained:
He trained the powerful new 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson in Southern California on spiral nebulae. These fuzzy patches of light in the sky were generally thought to be clouds of gas or dust within our galaxy, which was presumed to include everything in the universe except the Magellanic Clouds. Some nebulae seemed to contain a few stars, but nothing like the multitudes of the Milky Way.
Hubble not only found a number of stars in Andromeda, he found Cepheid variable stars. These stars vary from bright to dim, and a very smart Harvard computationist named Henrietta Leavitt had discovered in 1912 that you could measure distance with them. Given the brightness of the star and its period — the length of time it takes to go from bright to dim and back again — you could determine how far away it is.
Hubble used Leavitt’s formula to calculate that Andromeda was approximately 860,000 light years away. That’s more than eight times the distance to the farthest stars in the Milky Way. This conclusively proved that the nebulae are separate star systems and that our galaxy is not the universe.
How does one celebrate Hubble Day? Here are some suggestions:
- Easier than Christmas cards: Send a thank-you note to your junior high school science teacher, or whoever it was who inspired your interest in science. Mrs. Hedburg, Mrs. Andrews, Elizabeth K. Driggs, Herbert Gilbert, Mr. Willis, and Stephen McNeal, thank you.
- Rearrange your Christmas/Hanukkah/Eid/KWANZAA lights in the shape of the Andromeda Galaxy — or in the shape of any of the great photos from the Hubble Telescope (Andromeda Galaxy pictured above; Hubble images here)
A few of the images from the Hubble Telescope
- Go visit your local science museum; take your kids along – borrow somebody else’s kids if you have to (take them along, too); this year, in Dallas, you can visit the Perot Museum of Nature and Science — it’s a doozy
- Spend two hours in your local library, just looking through the books on astronomy and the universe
- Write a letter to your senators and congressman; tell them space exploration takes a minuscule portion of our federal budget, but it makes us dream big; tell them we need to dream big, and so they’d better make sure NASA is funded well. While you’re at it, put in a plug for funding Big Bird and the rest of public broadcasting, too. Science education in this nation more and more becomes the science shows on NPR and PBS, watched by kids who learned to read and think by watching Big Bird.
- Anybody got a good recipe for a cocktail called “The Hubble?” “The Andromeda?” Put it in the comments, please. “The Hubble” should have bubbles in it, don’t you think? What was it the good monk said? He was working to make great wine, but goofed somewhere, and charged the wine with another dose of yeast. When he uncorked the very first bottle of what would come to be called champagne, Benedictine Monk Dom Pierre Perignon said “I am drinking stars!” Only in French. In any case, a Hubble cocktail should have bubbles, some of Perignon’s stars.
The encore post, from 2007:
December 30, 1924, Edwin Hubble announced the results of his observations of distant objects in space.
In 1924, he announced the discovery of a Cepheid, or variable star, in the Andromeda Nebulae. Since the work of Henrietta Leavitt had made it possible to calculate the distance to Cepheids, he calculated that this Cepheid was much further away than anyone had thought and that therefore the nebulae was not a gaseous cloud inside our galaxy, like so many nebulae, but in fact, a galaxy of stars just like the Milky Way. Only much further away. Until now, people believed that the only thing existing outside the Milky Way were the Magellanic Clouds. The Universe was much bigger than had been previously presumed.
Later Hubble noted that the universe demonstrates a “red-shift phenomenon.” The universe is expanding. This led to the idea of an initial expansion event, and the theory eventually known as Big Bang.
Hubble’s life offered several surprises, and firsts:
Hubble was a tall, elegant, athletic, man who at age 30 had an undergraduate degree in astronomy and mathematics, a legal degree as a Rhodes scholar, followed by a PhD in astronomy. He was an attorney in Kentucky (joined its bar in 1913), and had served in WWI, rising to the rank of major. He was bored with law and decided to go back to his studies in astronomy.
In 1919 he began to work at Mt. Wilson Observatory in California, where he would work for the rest of his life. . . .
Hubble wanted to classify the galaxies according to their content, distance, shape, and brightness patterns, and in his observations he made another momentous discovery: By observing redshifts in the light wavelengths emitted by the galaxies, he saw that galaxies were moving away from each other at a rate constant to the distance between them (Hubble’s Law). The further away they were, the faster they receded. This led to the calculation of the point where the expansion began, and confirmation of the big bang theory. Hubble calculated it to be about 2 billion years ago, but more recent estimates have revised that to 20 billion years ago.
An active anti-fascist, Hubble wanted to joined the armed forces again during World War II, but was convinced he could contribute more as a scientist on the homefront. When the 200-inch telescope was completed on Mt. Palomar, Hubble was given the honor of first use. He died in 1953.
“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.”
That news on December 30, 1924, didn’t make the first page of the New York Times. The Times carried a small note on February 25, 1925, that Hubble won a $1,000 prize from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.
(Does anyone have a suitable citation for that video? Where did it come from? Who produced it? Is there more somewhere?)
Happy Hubble Day! Look up!
Hubble Space Telescope, working homage to Edwin Hubble – NASA image
Even More Resources:
Andromeda as we can see it today. Wikimedia image: The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation Andromeda. The image also shows Messier Objects 32 and 110, as well as NGC 206 (a bright star cloud in the Andromeda Galaxy) and the star Nu Andromedae. This image was taken using a hydrogen-alpha filter.