Edwin Hubble and the expanding universe

Edwin Hubble: Black-and-white photo of a young man sitting next to a small telescope.
Edwin Hubble as a young man. It was then that he said, “If only I could find some principle for whose sake I could leave everything else and devote my life.” He found it, in astronomy. Hubble’s work in astronomy in the 20th century became the foundation for Big Bang theory. Image is a screenshot from a Hubble Space Telescope video.

Who was Edwin Hubble?

Happy birthday, Edwin Hubble, born on November 20, 1889. The Hubble Space Telescope bears his name. His work became the basis for our modern cosmology: our idea of the universe as a whole.

Hubble was a multitalented man who majored in science as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. To keep a promise to his dying father, he studied law. He was also an amateur heavyweight boxer and reportedly turned down the chance to fight professionally. As a graduate student, he returned to science at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. In 1919, he accepted a position at the prestigious Mount Wilson Observatory in California, where he remained until his death in 1953. Shortly before his death, Hubble became the first astronomer to use the newly completed, famous Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California. At the time, the 200-inch (5.1-meter) was among the largest in the world.

Hubble helped astronomers see that we live in an expanding universe, where the galaxies are moving away from one another. This discovery is known as Hubble’s law (or the Hubble-Lemaître law). At its simplest, the law states that, the more distant the galaxy, the faster it is moving away from us. This is at the heart of our modern cosmology. The entire universe – space, time and matter – is thought to have been born in a Big Bang.

The 2024 lunar calendars are here! Best Christmas gifts in the universe! Check ’em out here.

Multicolored fuzzy specks and tiny oblongs on a black background, with text in white.
This image is the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field, released in 2012. Nearly every speck of light here is a separate galaxy beyond our Milky Way. Read more about this image here. Image via Hubble.

Edwin Hubble’s special place in the history of astronomy

A hundred years ago, most astronomers believed our whole universe consisted of just one galaxy: our own Milky Way. In the 1920s, Hubble was among the first to recognize that there is a universe of galaxies beyond the boundaries of our Milky Way. What a truly mind-blowing realization!

Edwin Hubble observed stars in a hazy patch of light that at the time was known as the Andromeda Nebula. Specifically, Hubble observed variable stars, those that change in brightness. He measured the period of how long a star took to dim and brighten. From the period of brightening, he calculated the star’s intrinsic brightness. From that, he could calculate the distance. That’s when he realized that the stars in this nebula were so far away that it couldn’t exist within our own galaxy.

At the time, many astronomers believed that the Andromeda Nebula was a forming solar system within the Milky Way’s boundaries. Hubble showed that this patch of light was really a separate galaxy. Thanks to Hubble, we know it today as the Andromeda Galaxy. It is the nearest large spiral galaxy beyond the Milky Way.

A galaxy in Andromeda

The Andromeda Galaxy is about 2.5 million light-years beyond our Milky Way. We also know that other galaxies extend around us in space for many billions of light-years. To people in the 1920s, though, this was a revelation. As soon as astronomers learned that spiral nebulae like the one in Andromeda are separate galaxies, the known universe got a whole lot bigger.

Very oblique view of fuzzy, yellowish spiral with glowing white center, dark lanes and foreground stars.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Paul Wilson in Paso Robles, California, captured this view of the Andromeda Galaxy on August 18, 2023. Thank you, Paul! In Hubble’s time, astronomers believed this object resided within our own Milky Way galaxy. Hubble used a class of variable stars called Cepheid variables to show that the Andromeda Galaxy is an island of stars in space external to our Milky Way.

Enter the expanding universe

But was this huge universe stationary? Or was it expanding? Or contracting?

The answer involved the light of galaxies as a whole. Astronomers observed shifts toward the red end of the spectrum in distant galaxies’ light. They interpreted this red shift as a sign that the galaxies are moving away from us. Hubble and his colleagues compared the distance estimates to other galaxies’ with their red shifts. On March 15, 1929, Hubble published his observation that the farthest galaxies are moving away faster than the closest ones.

This is the insight that initially became known as Hubble’s law.

Albert Einstein was supposedly elated to hear of Hubble’s work. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity implied that the universe must either be expanding or contracting. Einstein himself, however, had rejected this notion. Instead, he had favored the accepted idea that the universe was stationary and had always existed.

When Hubble presented his evidence of the expansion of the universe, Einstein embraced the idea. He called his adherence to the old idea his “greatest blunder.”

Giant telescope inside a dome.
The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California. This is the telescope that Edwin Hubble used to measure galaxy redshifts and discover the general expansion of the universe. Image via Andrew Dunn/ Wikimedia. Used with permission.

Renaming Hubble’s law

In late October 2018, members of the IAU voted to change the name of the Hubble law to Hubble-Lemaître law. This change gives credit to the Belgian astronomer and priest Georges Lemaître. Of the 4,060 voting astronomers (of around 11,072 eligible members), 78% favored of this change.

In the 1920s, Georges Lemaître – a Belgian Catholic priest, mathematician, astronomer – also described how the expansion of the universe causes galaxies to move away from Earth at speeds proportional to their distance.

Piero Benvenuti is a former IAU general secretary who proposed the name change. He told Nature that the new terminology is a recommendation only, saying:

If people will continue to use the Hubble law naming, nobody will object.

Read more from Nature: Belgian priest recognized in Hubble-law name change

Image of a man in a suit and dress shirt with a tie, smoking a pipe.
Edwin Hubble. Image via Johan Hagemeyer/ Wikimedia. Used with permission.

Bottom line: Edwin Hubble’s birthday is November 20, 1889. Hubble showed there are separate galaxies beyond our Milky Way and that the more distant the galaxy, the faster it moves away from us. The Hubble Space Telescope bears his name.

Hubble eXtreme Deep Field

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