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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Edwin Hubble


My wife and I have been watching a Teaching Company lecture series entitled "Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe", taught by Sean Carroll.  It is a fascinating look into the makeup of the universe, of which only five percent is the stuff that is known to be visible anywhere.  Twenty-five percent is Dark Matter which can't be seen but which behaves like particles and exhibits a gravitational pull.  The other seventy percent is Dark Energy which does not behave as particles and is thought to be evenly distributed throughout the universe.  It is postulated to be there because it is the only way in which the behavior of the universe can be explained.

Carroll is a good teacher.  In his second lecture, he was talking about the expansion of the universe and the role that Edwin Hubble (1889 - 1953) played in providing data to show that this expansion was taking place. Hubble was able to demonstrate that the farther a galaxy was from any observation point (like the earth) the faster it was receding away from that point.  This is now called Hubble's Law.  It works no matter where you might stand in the universe.  If you are a long way from the earth, it is not that the intervening galaxies would be seen to be coming towards your point of observation.  They would be seen as receding even there.  It seems counter-intuitive, as is much of particle physics and cosmology.

My ears perked up a bit higher when Carroll was describing the path that Edwin Hubble took to become a world famous astronomer.  Turns out, he was a bright kid and a great high school athlete.  He excelled at track-and-field at the University of Chicago and set a high jump record while a student there.  He won a Rhodes Scholarship and went on to Oxford University where he first studied law and then switched his major to Spanish.  When he came back to the States, he taught Spanish, physics, and mathematics at the New Albany, Indiana High School before enlisting in the army in World War I.  Does this sound like the path to becoming a world renowned cosmologist?

After the war, Hubble returned to the University of Chicago to pursue what he had decided was going to be his career: astronomy.  He studied at the Yerkes Observatory at the University and after he received his Ph.D., he was invited to join the staff at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles.  He spent the rest of his career at Mt. Wilson.

There is hope for all of us late bloomers who can't quite figure out what we want to be when we grow up.  It took Hubble some time to figure out where he needed to be but when he did, he was extremely productive.  Hubble was not alone.  Samuel Morse and Robert Fulton were both accomplished artists in their first careers before finding later success in technology.  Henry Ford was a mechanic at the Detroit Edison.  Thomas Edison was a telegraph operator.  It would seem that a lot of creative people don't come into their own until they have passed through an incubation period of shorter or longer length.  What seems to be common among these people is that when they heard their muse, they followed it.  Maybe we would be better off as a society if more people left their dead-end jobs for more creative paths.  Certainly, Hubble didn't go directly from the high school classroom in Indiana to Mt. Wilson.  He needed education, and he got it at the University of Chicago.  So what if it takes a little retooling?

Most of us are not going to have a scientific law named after us or a satellite-based observatory named in our honor.  But that's not the point.  It seems to me that the point is to do what releases what is best in each of us.  The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, is quoted as having said, "Follow your bliss".  I think following your passion would do just as nicely.

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