Finding out about the astronomers who found the universe

Book review: The Day We Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak

Price: US$11.53; NZ$20.82

Hardcover: 368 page
Publisher: Pantheon (April 7, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375424296

This is a great book – just the sort of history of science I enjoy. One that smashes a few illusions, introduces new personalities, describes the significant research and debates of the time. And also describes the key scientists in a human way, with all their foibles, prejudices and illusions as well as their scientific contributions.

The title is apt. The book describes the work and people which produced our modern day understanding of the universe. Less than a century ago we used to think that our galaxy, the milky way, comprised the whole universe. And that it was static.  Now we see it a infinitely bigger, with billions of galaxies similar to ours. We also understand that it is expanding and that we can trace this expansion back almost 14 billion years to the “big bang.”

The big illusion the book shatters is the received story of how this happened through the work of Edwin Hubble. Of course he played a key role – but we normally never hear the background stories, the other personalities involved or details of the disputes and resolutions. It’s normally all about Edwin Hubble.

Island universes

Marcia Bartusiak reveals that concepts of a larger universe go back a long way. In fact many had a concept of a “multiverse” containing large numbers of “island universes” like our own – the milky way galaxy.

As far back as the first century B.C., the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius argued against a finite universe. These arguments were revived in the sixteenth century by Thomas Digges in England and the Italian Giordano Bruno (one of his many heresies for which he was burned at the stake by the inquisition in 1600). In the Eighteenth Century Thomas Wright speculated on:

” whether certain cloudy spots, then being observed in the heavens in greater numbers, might be additional creations, bordering upon us but “too remote for even our telescopes to reach,” countless spheres with many “Divine Centres.” He seemed to be echoing the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who in 1734 also wondered if “there may be innumerable other spheres, and innumerable other heavens similar to those we behold, so many, indeed, and so mighty, that our own may be respectively only a point.”

In 1755 Kant described nebular patches in the nighttime sky as:

“just universes and, so to speak, Milky Ways… These higher universes are not without relation to one another, and by this mutual relationship they constitute again a still more immense system.”

The German scientist Alexander von Humboldt later dubbed them Kant’s “island universes” – and the description stuck. Astronomers passionately debated the “mystery of the nebulae” for almost two centuries until  Edwin Hubble announced, on January 1, 1925, his findings that ultimately established that our universe was a thousand trillion times larger than previously believed, filled with myriad galaxies like our own.

This, of course, radically reshaped how humans understood their place in the cosmos. Einstein abandoned his immobile cosmic model, finally accepting the concept of an expanding universe resulting from Hubble’s findings.

Bartusiak’s book provides an intricate history of the discoveries behind this work. With battles of will, clever insights, and wrong turns made by the early investigators in this great twentieth-century pursuit. While describing the contribution of the better known scientists like Einstein, Hubble and Harlow Shapley) she also describes the work of those we usually never hear of.

People like Henrietta Leavitt, who discovered the means to measure the vast dimensions of the cosmos. Her story illustrates the secondary role allowed for women in astronomy as “computers’, who did the repetitive calculations and recording from plates and were not allowed to observe. Leavitt, who overcame problems of health and deafness to produce such vital astronomical methods was even considered for a Nobel prize nomination – until the nominators realised she had died two years previously.

The biographies and contributions of many others are recorded in the book. Vesto Slipher, the first and unheralded discoverer of the universe’s expansion; Georges Lemaître, the Jesuit priest who correctly interpreted Einstein’s theories in relation to the universe; Milton Humason, who, with only an eighth-grade education, became a world-renowned expert on galaxy motions… and others.

“An odd bird”

These comments by the author about Edwin Hubble illustrate how she has presented the scientists in all their complexity  – warts and all:

“He was an odd bird, but certainly a handsome one. Friends called him an Adonis. I think he resembles the British actor Jeremy Irons. Raised in Missouri, in a solid middle-class household, Hubble somewhere along the line yearned to be singular and distinct. Once he graduated from the University of Chicago, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, where he completely reinvented himself; he adopted a British accent that he maintained for the rest of his life, dressed like a dandy, and began to add dubious credentials to his resume, like saying he once practiced law, which he never did. He married into a rich Los Angeles family, and throughout his life seemed intent on erasing his Midwestern roots. His wife never met Hubble’s mother or siblings. Hubble was not chums with his astronomy colleagues but preferred to socialize with the actors and writers in nearby Hollywood. One astronomer called Hubble, often arrogant and standoffish, a “stuffed shirt.”

Yet, while Hubble fibbed to his friends about his background, he was meticulously careful about his science. In fact, when he obtained the first evidence in early 1924 that the Andromeda nebula was truly a distant galaxy, he held off an official report for almost a year. He first wanted to counter every possible argument against his find. Being caught in a scientific error was Hubble’s greatest nightmare. And when he did finally release the data at that astronomy meeting on New Year’s Day in 1925, after a lot of arm-twisting from his colleagues, he wasn’t even there. He had someone else relay the findings.”

Bartusiak certainly has the ability to describe her characters well – and colourfully. But this ability also extends to her description of their work and discoveries.

I found the book a real pleasure to read – as well as being informative.

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2 responses to “Finding out about the astronomers who found the universe

  1. Ordering the book now. Great review!


  2. Pingback: Edwin Powell Hubble Quiz Facts Trivia - American astronomer - "Doppler shift" - Hubble's law

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