May 15, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 16

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    Hubble telescope bears his name, now stamp bears astronomer’s face

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

    A commemorative stamp honoring Chicago alumnus Edwin Hubble was unveiled Wednesday, April 30, before the weekly colloquium of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. Astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) received his A.B. from the University in 1910 and his Ph.D. in 1917. Hubble played a pivotal role in deciphering the vast and complex nature of the universe. Pictured are James Mruk (left), Manager of Public Affairs and Communications for the Great Lakes Area of the U.S. Postal Service, and Edward “Rocky” Kolb, Professor and Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    Edwin Hubble displayed stellar athletic talent as an undergraduate at the University. Before graduating in 1910 with a bachelor’s degree in physics, the 6’2” Hubble played forward on the University’s basketball team, which won the national championship in 1909 and the Big Ten championship in 1910.

    As a high jumper on the track team, he once cleared 6 feet, one-quarter inches—a feat that stood as an intercollegiate record in Illinois for many years. But as an astronomer, Hubble would later set his sights to telescopic heights. His cosmic discoveries eclipsed his athletic achievements, and earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor.

    The Postal Service presented a giant reproduction of the stamp to the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics during a Wednesday, April 30 ceremony in the Research Institutes. During the ceremony, Edward “Rocky” Kolb, Professor and Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics, recounted Hubble’s early life, his athletic exploits as a young man and the scientific achievements that followed.

    Hubble was born in 1889 in Marshfield, Mo. His family later moved to the Chicago area, and he graduated from Wheaton High School at the age of 16.

    Majoring in physics at the University, he worked in the laboratory of Robert Millikan, who received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1923.

    “As a sophomore here, he won the award for the best physics student. His grades seemed to slip a bit during his last two years, possibly because of his involvement with the powerhouse athletic teams of the University of Chicago,” said Kolb, evoking laughter from the audience.

    After graduating from the University, Hubble studied law as one of the first Rhodes Scholars at Oxford. Returning to the United States in 1914, he taught physics and Spanish and coached basketball at Indiana’s New Albany High School.

    But Hubble soon resumed his studies at the University’s Yerkes Observatory, receiving his Ph.D. in astronomy from Chicago in 1917. His doctoral thesis, “Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae,” was “absolutely unremarkable,” Kolb said.

    Following military service during World War I, Hubble became an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif. “He used the 100-inch Hooker Telescope to make two spectacular discoveries,” Kolb said.

    On Oct. 6, 1923, Hubble observed a star in the Andromeda Nebula that allowed him to measure its distance from Earth. At the time, astronomers believed that the universe consisted of just one galaxy, the Milky Way. Hubble’s measurement showed that Andromeda was actually a galaxy all its own.


    “The millions of faint nebulae that were seen by astronomers were in fact island universes,” Kolb said. “He went on in 1929 to discover the Hubble relationship, which is the basis of the expanding universe of the big bang.”

    Astronomy students today learn of the Hubble constant, Hubble law, Hubble diagram, Hubble age, Hubble classification, Hubble radius, Hubble sequence, Hubble flow and Hubble velocity.

    “Hubble’s accomplishments in the field of extragalactic astronomy make him the greatest American astronomer of the 20th century,” Kolb said. “About the only thing Hubble didn’t do in astronomy is to construct the Hubble Space Telescope.” Hubble died in 1953.

    Inviting Kolb to help him unveil the Hubble stamp was James Mruk, Manager of Public Affairs and Communications, Great Lakes Area of the U.S. Postal Service. “What we’re doing is paying tribute to that incredible capacity that resides within us,” said Mruk, of the commemorative series of stamps that honors American science. “It’s this combination of curiosity and intellect that inspired humanity to split the atom and to reach to the stars.”