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The Man Who Expanded the Universe : Edwin Hubble may have been a fake in some ways, but he was always true to science : EDWIN HUBBLE: Mariner of the Nebulae, By Gale E. Christianson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $27.50; 420 pp.)

August 20, 1995|Dennis Overbye | Dennis Overbye is the author of "Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe" (HarperPerennial). He is working on a book about Albert Einstein

If ever a man looked and acted in accordance with the part that history had assigned him, astronomer Edwin Hubble was that man: tall and Hollywood handsome with a dimpled chin and the pipe-smoking gaze of an English gentleman. Champion athlete, war hero, lawyer, hero of the Wild West, he had it all. He interacted with others, an awed young astronomer once said, as might a god.

Seemingly without breaking a sweat, Hubble rode into history in the 1920s the way his patriarchal grandfather had ridden on a sorrel horse with white feet and a mane that touched its knees into Springfield, Mo., in 1856. The junior Hubble's horses were giant domed clockworks of steel and glass perched on the rugged, precarious heights of Mt. Wilson, north of Pasadena.

It was there that he described the first revolutionary hints of what we now call the expanding universe. By the 1940s, Hubble was the second most famous scientist in the world. Movie stars made pilgrimages to the telescope to see him; Hitler allegedly sent a U-boat to kill him. He was photographed with Albert Einstein. He was on the cover of Time magazine.

More books than are good for your sanity or your eyesight have been written about the big bang and the mysteries of its putative past and future. Cosmologists today travel the planet like rock stars, and when they want to have a meeting they have to hire a convention hall. In this expanding universe of publicity, it is something of a scandal that Hubble's own story has not been adequately told until now. Hubble wanted it that way. He produced no memoir.

After his death his wife, Grace, destroyed his personal papers. All that remains are her own idolatrous journals in which she recorded the exploits he recounted. As this fascinating and heroically researched biography makes clear, however, most of those tales were made up of whole cloth.

In "Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae," Gale Christianson has dug through previously inaccessible archives, interviews with Hubble's sisters, friends, relatives, and colleagues, and Grace's eloquent and suspect journals to piece together a riveting portrait of a great scientist and a haunted man, and the best look we are likely to have of the real Hubble.

Christianson glides gracefully between the personal and the cosmic as he moves from Hubble's rock-ribbed American boyhood on the plains of Missouri to his journeys among the stars of both the celestial and earthly variety. Along the way there is a suitably Runyonesque cast of supporting characters, from Milton Humason, mule driver and dropout who rose to become a tobacco-chewing wise-cracking astronomer, to Nicholas Copernicus, the faithful cat.

Many of the most colorful of these characters were hanging around Mt. Wilson when Hubble, a newly minted Ph.D. with nebulae in his eyes, arrived in 1919, coincidental with the opening of the 100-inch Hooker telescope, the world's largest. The nature of the mysterious clouds known as nebulae that pocked the sky was the burning astronomical issue of the time.

Within four years, Hubble had supplied the definitive proof that one, the Andromeda nebula, was in fact a huge conglomeration of stars as large as the Milky Way and vastly far away. In the process, he humiliated his archrival Harlow Shapley, another prickly self-made Missourian, who didn't believe that nebulae were galaxies and, given the chance to discover it, had wiped the crucial ink marks off the photo plate.

Five years later, Hubble had begun to fill in the larger picture of island universes, strewn like dust as far through space as the rapidly enlarging eyes of mankind could see, rushing enigmatically and majestically away from each other. Einstein himself, had recoiled from this notion when it popped up in his equations.

Not everyone agreed, and behind Hubble's pipe-smoking facade was a killer competitor. With insider relish, Christianson relates vitriolic battles with other astronomers and the administrators at his observatory that sent the godlike astronomer to his bed curled with stomach pains. There was apparently a lot at stake.

Hubble's real struggle, Christianson suggests, was with his puritanical and austere father, John, a traveling insurance agent and failed lawyer, "a man whose brief and sporadic appearances were fraught with a mixture of anticipation and dread." His judgmental apparitions seem to have inspired in the young Edwin a hunger for recognition that not even the universe could fill.

Edwin had acquired a boyish love of the stars from his grandfather, the man on the horse, but his father demanded that Edwin be a lawyer. It was not until John died of kidney failure at the age of 52, that Edwin, reluctantly reading law as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, was free to pursue astronomy.

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