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Essay / Robert A. Jones

HEARTS OF THE CITY: Where dilemmas are aired and unsung heroes and resiliency arecelebrated. : Bury and Forget

October 18, 1995|Robert A. Jones

Forty years dead now, he stands as the second most important astronomer in history, after Galileo. He discovered the existence of galaxies outside our own and then proved that the cosmos is expanding. He once caused Albert Einstein to confess his own wrong-thinking about the structure of the universe.

His name was Edwin Hubble and he was, in short, the kind of man that Southern California loves to bury and forget. Hubble created the modern concept of the universe not at Princeton or atop some peak in the Andes, but here at Mt. Wilson. The mountain that, these days, we know as the beloved source of our television signal. And, oh, yes, maybe a nice spot for a picnic.

Of all our cultural crimes, and there are many, we are most guilty of willfully destroying our past. Why do we do this? Why can you walk down the streets of virtually any other major city and feel the presence of past lives, but not here? A mystery. And nowhere is our crime of forgetting more apparent than at the lonely, dusty telescopes of Mt. Wilson.

I mean, it's not as if Hubble made some Podunk discovery like a few new galaxies in the western quadrant. Hubble discovered the very concept of galaxies. Before Hubble and his work at Mt. Wilson, most scientists believed that the Milky Way constituted the universe. Those other faint points of light amounted to accumulations of gas and dust, they thought, a sort of cosmic lint. Then Hubble came along in the 1920s and established that those lint globs actually were vast gatherings of stars as large, or larger than our own.

In that one stroke, the size of the universe expanded several million fold. Hubble made his breakthrough partially because he was working with the best equipment in the world, using telescopes far more powerful than anywhere else. How those telescopes came to sit on Mt. Wilson is a rich story in itself. But essentially, says Hubble's longtime assistant, Allan Sandage, Hubble "was the right man working at the right place at the right time. Mt. Wilson simply had no competitors. In its day, it was the Delphi Oracle of astronomy."

A few years later, Hubble would make his truly great discovery by debunking yet another strongly held scientific belief, one espoused by Einstein. That belief said the universe sat in the heavens as still as a coffin, static, for all eternity. Hubble began to study the distance between galaxies using redshifts, the stretching out of light that occurs when objects move away from each other.

His results startled the world and changed forever the way we think not only of the universe but ourselves. Hubble found that the galaxies were moving away from each other at high speeds. The universe was hardly static but expanding, growing larger by the second. A short time later, on Feb. 4, 1931, Einstein himself came to the mountain and formally conceded the point. He would later admit that supporting the idea of a static universe was the worst blunder of his career.

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What Hubble did was lay the foundation for the Big Bang, and he achieved it in an heroic manner. Sitting night after night at the 100-inch telescope, sparks flowing from his pipe, bundled against the cold (you could not heat the interior for fear of warping the instruments), Hubble presented the kind of figure that has disappeared from today's computerized science. The elaborate instruments themselves--Mt. Wilson had a 60-inch telescope in addition to the 100-inch--formed an almost Victorian backdrop to this world of lonely searching of the heavens.

His accomplishments so changed the idea of the universe that NASA chose to honor Hubble by naming its great space telescope after him. But nowhere in Los Angeles will you see a remembrance of Hubble or his work. In fact, unless you look closely, you can visit Mt. Wilson itself and never notice an acknowledgment of what happened there.

All the more pity because it turns out that Hubble's personal life in Los Angeles offers a story as outlandish and puzzling as his career was remarkable. In a new biography by Gale E. Christianson, Hubble is described as running with the Hollywood crowd, a vain, arrogant man given to pathologically lying about his past. Eternally scrupulous about his science, he was equally slippery about his personal life.

It may seem preposterous these days to imagine an astronomer running a social salon for the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Anita Loos, William Randolph Hearst, Frank Capra, Lillian Gish and Harpo Marx, but that's what he did. As for the lying, Hubble claimed a previous legal career which didn't exist, athletic triumphs which didn't happen, and he faked a British accent to boot. Like many Hollywood producers and directors of the time, he used the fabrication to reinvent himself.

In other words, he fit perfectly into the Los Angeles of the 1920s and '30s. You could even make the case that Hubble could not have existed in the more limited confines of places like Harvard or Princeton. He needed a locale where his re-inventions were tolerated, where his need for a phony accent was understood--and Los Angeles was the place.

He died in 1954, still cutting a dapper figure around town. This city, which had nurtured his flawed genius, promptly forgot him. And maybe that's the cautionary lesson of Hubble's story: This city will forgive flawed geniuses like no other. Just don't die. Alive, flawed geniuses are fun. Dead, they're history. And, as we all know, history in L.A. is something worse than flaws or death. It's a bore.

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