Early interest in astronomy

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Hubble (figure 9.1) was the second son and third of eight children born to John and Virginia Hubble. His father had attended law school, although without earning a degree, and had run a legal practice for a few years. During Hubble's childhood he worked for a number of insurance companies and was often away from Marshfield on business travel for weeks at a time. His children feared his return as much as they looked forward to it; he was stern and religious, although if they behaved themselves, he might amuse them by blowing smoke rings from his pipe or cigar. Virginia, who had completed two years at a women's college before being married, had a more patient, humorous

Figure 9.1 Edwin Powell Hubble (1889-1953). (Credit: Palomar Observatory, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives.)

disposition. Both parents expected much of their children and supervised their schoolwork closely.

Hubble had two brothers: Henry, three years older and somewhat withdrawn, and Bill, two years younger. The family as a whole was quite musical. John played the violin, Hubble's older sister Lucy played the piano, and Bill played the mandolin. Hubble contented himself with singing at the family musical soirees, but taught himself to play the mandolin as an adult. He and Bill both did well in school and excelled in athletics, but the similarities did not run deep, for while Bill was friendly and outgoing, Edwin acted aloof even toward his few friends.

Hubble's friends described him as a nature-lover. He liked to roam the fields and woods looking for wildlife, while keeping an eye out for flint arrowheads left by Osage Indians and their ancient predecessors. The countryside around Marshfield is now, and was in Hubble's time, known for its apple orchards, which in late summer yield an abundance of red fruit. Beyond the agricultural lands near town, Hubble liked to explore the rolling hills and well-timbered rivers. In winter, temperatures sometimes dipped below freezing overnight. Then he liked to show off his ice-skating prowess on a lake close to home.

Hubble learned to read early and evidently found his school work tedious, for his marks in deportment were never exemplary. But outside the classroom he found intellectual stimulation through his relationship with his maternal grandfather, the amateur astronomer William James, and his paternal grandfather, Martin Hubble. Martin Hubble, a notably tall and broad-shouldered man, divided his time between homes in Marshfield and Springfield, 20 miles away. He had fought on the Union side of the Civil War, as a captain and quartermaster in the Enrolled Missouri Militia, one of 89 small regiments funded by the state government to defend cities, towns and railroads. ''Captain'' Hubble, as his friends and neighbors knew him, believed strongly in education—he helped to endow Drury College, a four-year Christian school in Spring-field—and engaged his grandson in discussions about astronomy and American history. He lived longer than Hubble's maternal grandfather, and figured prominently in the boy's early life.

Hubble's late night at the telescope on his eighth birthday may have been the spark that lit a life-long fire for astronomy. A little less than two years later, he told his friend Sam Shelton about an upcoming total lunar eclipse, when the alignment of the Moon, Earth, and Sun would cast the Earth's shadow across the illuminated face of the Moon. Hubble persuaded his parents to let him and Sam stay up all night together to witness every moment. Although any lunar eclipse, on a clear night such as the boys enjoyed, is an intriguing spectacle, it also required unusual patience and imagination on nine-year-old Edwin's part to grapple with the abstraction behind the phenomenon and to stay focused on the event for many hours.

In 1899, shortly after Hubble's lunar eclipse viewing, the family moved to Illinois. They lived briefly in Evanston before settling in Wheaton, about 25 miles west of John's office in downtown Chicago. They lived comfortably there in a succession of large houses. Though not well-to-do, they could afford the help of cooks and housekeepers. The family by then included Henry, Lucy, Edwin, Bill, and baby Helen. Two more daughters, Janie and Betsy, were born in the 1900s; another daughter, Virginia, had died in Marshfield at the age of 14 months.

Around the time of the family's move to Wheaton, probably before his 12th birthday, Hubble corresponded with his grandfather Martin Hubble, in Springfield, about the planet Mars. The young Hubble had been caught up in a kind of ''Mars fever'' that spread through Europe and the United States in the late 1800s. The excitement culminated in 1910, about a decade after Hubble's correspondence, with the publication of Percival Lowell's book, Mars as the Abode of Life.

In 1877, as the orbital motions of Mars and Earth brought the two planets as close together as they ever get, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had taken advantage of the opportunity to study the surface of the red planet telescopically. Schiaparelli reported seeing dark streaks on the surface, which he called ''canali,'' or channels. In English translation, the word became ''canals'' — calling to mind the great engineered waterways of the nineteenth century, the Erie canal (completed in 1825) and the Suez canal (completed in 1869). Newspapers editorialized on the possibility of life on Mars, and the French astronomer Nicolas Flammarion published an entire encyclopedia of Mars and its ''living conditions.'' In 1897, H G Wells' The War of the Worlds, the story of an invasion of Earth by Martians, appeared in serial form, in Great Britain in Pearson's magazine and in the United States in Cosmopolitan.

Thus Mars was a very popular topic the year of Hubble's eighth birthday, and it is not surprising that he maintained an interest in the planet. We don't know the content of his letter to his grandfather, but given his style as a researcher in adulthood, it would not be surprising if the youth echoed the opinion of most professional astronomers, that the existence of canals was still speculative. In any event, Hubble family history has it that a proud Martin Hubble had Edwin's letter printed in a Springfield newspaper.

At school in Wheaton, Hubble had some of the same problems he had encountered in Marshfield. He loved to read, but was an atrocious speller. He antagonized his teachers by challenging them in class. Among his peers, he sought respect rather than friendship: one of his closest associates recalled that he was a schemer and a dreamer who ''always seemed to be looking for an audience to which he could expound some theory or other.''4 And yet, Hubble could easily have been popular with his classmates. By the time he entered high school he was developing into a tall and handsome young man. Throughout his high school years, furthermore, and especially in his senior year, he made a name for himself in athletics. As a member of the basketball team, he helped lead the Wheatonians to victory in the state championships of 1905. The next year, as a senior, he distinguished himself as a member of the football team, playing tackle, and in high jump, pole vault, hammer throw, and discus, as a member of the track team. At a meet at Northwestern University in May 1906, he even set a state record with a high jump of 5 feet 85 inches.

Hubble's lack of interest in his school's academic program did not mean he avoided exposure to science and the use of scientific instruments. At home, he read everything he could get his hands on pertaining to astronomy. With his brothers, he also attended occasional public lectures and scientific demonstrations at nearby Wheaton College. If any of those lectures dealt with current topics in astronomy, he would have been exposed to the technology of photography and spectroscopy. He may also have heard of recent observations made with what was then the world's largest telescope, the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes Observatory, some 70 miles north of Wheaton in the Wisconsin town of Williams Bay.

The high point of Hubble's early life, according to his sister Helen, was the summer he spent assisting a team of surveyors in the wooded plains of northern Wisconsin. Hubble had just finished his junior year of high school and was probably glad to escape the company of his classmates, who found him so difficult to get close to. In Wisconsin he relished the outdoor life, as he had enjoyed exploring the area around Marshfield and as he was to enjoy hiking, fishing and camping in later life. And as an avid student of astronomy, he must have been aware of the connection between surveying and techniques of determining distances in astronomy through parallax. Whether he knew it or not, Hubble was following in the footsteps of Thomas Wright, Friedrich Bessel, Wilhelm Struve, and other explorers of the cosmos who had practiced their skills in geometry by measuring angles and baselines on the ground.

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