Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview
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27
Beyond the Galaxy
Edwin Hubble

Missourian

Edwin Hubble was a man with grand aspirations, and to a remarkable degree he attained his goals. As a pioneer in the observation of realms lying beyond our galaxy, he became the preeminent astronomer of his time, and indeed of the twentieth century. His astronomical observations gave us the first glimpse of our modern cosmology based on a universe whose space is expanding. He married into a wealthy southern California family, and counted among his friends many from the California intellectual elite.

But the successes came with a price. As he rose through the social and economic strata, Hubble reinvented himself, sometimes with dubious credentials. There was a discontinuity between the one Hubble, with an ordinary midwestern background, and the other, a wealthy Anglophile who mingled with the Hollywood greats. Along the way, Hubble partly disowned his family members, not allowing any of them to meet his wife or her family. Hubble's youngest sister, Betsy, said in an interview, “I always wondered if Edwin didn't feel guilty about not having done more [for his family]. But great men have to go their own way. There is bound to be some trampling. We never minded.” Some of his colleagues considered him “arrogant and self-serving,” and blocked one of the prizes he coveted most, directorship of the great Mount Palomar Observatory.

Hubble was handsome almost to a fault. He was tall, athletic, usually equipped with a pipe, and as an admiring neighbor put it, “very, very masculine.” Anita Loos, a writer best known for her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Broadway production of the same title, would not have hired him to play the part of a famous astronomer: “You can't have him look like a blooming Clark Gable!”

He was born in 1889, far from the scenes of his triumphs, in Marshfield, Missouri. Edwin was the third of seven surviving children, three boys and four girls. Their father, John, was trained in the legal profession, but preferred the insurance business and all the traveling that went with it. His wife, Virginia Lee (“Jennie”) James, seems to have tolerated John's many absences by living close to her parents in Marshfield. Edwin Hubble's biographer Gale Christianson provides this

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