Friday, November 20, 2009

Other far-off things

‘The big cosmological program I shall not live to see,’ Edwin Hubble, born 120 years ago today, told his wife, Grace, near the time of his death. The truth is, though, that not only had he lived through an era of unprecedented new astronomical understanding, but that he was the very pioneer of that understanding. Grace’s diaries are kept with the Edwin Hubble archive but none of them - as far as I know - have been published. A very few extracts can be found on the internet, but many more can be read offline - in a ‘sloppy’ and ‘pretentious’ novel called Hubble Time!

Hubble was born on 20 November 1889, 120 years ago today, in Marshfield, Missouri, though his family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, before he was a teenager. He studied maths, astronomy and philosophy at the University of Chicago and, on the basis of academic and sporting abilities (running, basketball and boxing) he was awarded one of Oxford University’s first Rhodes Scholarships. There, he completed a masters in Spanish; and on returning to the US taught the language at New Albany High School, Indiana. He longed, though, to return to science and after a year or so signed on at the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago, to study atronomy to PhD level.

During World War I, Hubble joined the army, and quickly advanced to the rank of major. Thereafter, he took up a position at the Mount Wilson Observatory, California, with its Hooker 100-inch telescope. In the early 1920s, he found the first certain evidence of separate galaxies of dust and gas far beyond our own. He established that many such galaxies exist, and he developed the first system for their classification. Further, by the late 1920s, he had shown that these galaxies were receding from ours at velocities proportional to their distance.

Hubble is included in the Time 100 list of most important people in the 20th century. Its profile notes how Albert Einstein visited Mount Wilson to see the telescope and thank Hubble personally because his idea of the universe expanding conformed with his (Einstein’s) theory of relativity, even though other astronomers had insisted this could not be the case. Time goes on say: ‘With the greatest scientific superstar of the age paying him homage, Hubble became a popular superstar in his own right. His 1936 book on his discoveries, The Realm of the Nebulae, cemented his public reputation. Tourists and Hollywood luminaries alike would drive up the mountain to marvel at the observatory where Hubble had discovered the universe, and he and his wife Grace were embraced by the elite of California society.’

After World War II, during which he returned to the army, Hubble helped design and plan the new 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory, some 90 miles southeast of Mount Wilson; and, in 1948, he was given the honour of being its first user. Between then and 1975, Hale was world’s largest operating telescope. Hubble died in 1953. Interestingly or not, Wikipedia’s article on the man is roughly one-fifth of the size of the article about the famous space telescope named after him!

In 1924, Hubble had married Grace Burke-Lieb, the recently widowed daughter of a well-connected Southern California millionaire. Throughout their nearly 30 years of marriage, Grace kept a diary, recording her husband’s story. There’s a catalogue of her diaries in the inventory of the Edwin Hubble papers at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Although I can find no trace of them ever having been published, a couple of extracts can be found on the internet. One (undated) about a visit by the Huxleys comes from Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy by Holly Henry (published by Cambridge University Press in 2003 - see Googlebooks).

‘After dinner we walked to the 100-inch - The moon and globular cluster. Then we came out into enchanting moonlight, a glow in the west, a haze of moonbeams and shadow, all the domes and towers [of the telescope observatories] washed with shining silver. Went to the 60-inch & E[dwin] trained it on the ring nebula and other far-off things. . . Matthew [Huxley’s son] said, what do you expect to find with the 200-inch, sir? and E - We hope to find something we didn’t expect. And Aldous chuckled. Outside the 60-inch Aldous said, ‘Look at the pilasters and the fluting. It is Roman, it is like the tomb of a great queen.’ And it was, under the magic of the moon.’

And another can be found in Dan Cloer’s short bio of Hubble at Vision.org (a website designed to ‘challenge readers to examine the historical and philosophical origins of today’s issues’). ‘By September 1953,’ Cloer says, ‘[Hubble] had completed his 176th exposure at Palomar. At the end of the run, he took his wife on a quiet tour of the huge dome and the photographic vault. ‘In two years I will have determined the red-shift [from the new observations],’ Grace recorded him as saying. Her diary entry continued, ‘But the big cosmological program I shall not live to see.’ ’

And then there’s Hubble Time, a novel by Tom Bezzi, who wrote no other novels and died in 1995. The book, first published in 1987 by Mercury House (reissued in 1990 by iUniverse), is narrated by Hubble’s fictional granddaughter, Jane, and ‘explores the private lives of Edwin and Grace Hubble and their compelling legacy’. The blurb explains that the novel contains excerpts from Grace Hubble’s actual diaries as well as previously unpublished material by the Hubbles’ intimate friends such as Aldous Huxley.

But oh dear, here is a review of Hubble Time by Publishers Weekly, posted on Amazon’s website. ‘Astronomer Edwin Hubble and his wife, Grace, a stylish couple who frequented intellectual Los Angeles circles during the first half of this century, make excellent subjects for a historical novel, especially because Grace left behind numerous diaries documenting their life together. Bezzi’s first novel promises much, combining rich material with an innovative premise, but it flounders in execution. The narrative consists of journal entries written by the Hubbles’ fictional granddaughter, Jane, who interweaves excerpts from Grace’s diaries which she is reading into her own. Jane painfully introspective when contemplating her own narrow existence as a lowly copy editor at an inconsequential astronomy magazine turns blindly adulatory when examining her grandparents, reverentially recounting details such as Edwin’s preferred tobacco. Hubble’s significant contributions to his field and the roster of his illustrious friends (among them Aldous Huxley and Charlie Chaplin), however, receive inadequate attention. Jane draws fruitless emotional parallels between herself and Grace, harping ineffectually on the low self-esteem that plagues them both. She also apologizes constantly for her inferior writing abilities, and rightly so, it seems. Bezzi’s prose is sloppy and pretentious, bogging down frequently in awkward repetition and badly chosen phrases in assorted European languages.’

1 comment:

As Bjorn said...

I've read Hubble Time at least three times. It uses Hubble's discoveries and work metaphorically. In actuality it is an exploration of the distances created in families. It is well written, but it is not exactly about Edwin Hubble. Why does out culture have such trouble understanding the use of metaphor as significant tool for exploring the psyche? Makes me shake my head.