Stargazing with Edwin Hubble and Nicolas Catpernicus

cat

Image credit: cavemancircus.com

Off the western coast of Turkey, in a city that was then known as Greek Miletus, lived a man named Thales of peculiar curiosities. Instead of mythology, he focused on mathematics. To him, gods held no form, but geometry did – so much so that a fundamental theorem in geometry bears his name. But what set him apart from the rest of the Greek intellectuals was his hobby of rubbing amber on things: from trees to toenails, literally everything. Sources even say that he is the inspiration for Fred Flintstone’s popular prehistoric battle cry: A rubba dabba do.

I jest – for that is not entirely true. But the point is, he rubbed amber on things. Fortune struck one day, for an apprentice made its presence available for amber rubbing. Thales rubbed the amber on his accomplice and noticed that it attracted objects post-rub. Truly, the event must have been electrifying – as it was the earliest documented demonstration of static electricity. Modern usage bears the reminder of this finding: the word electron comes from the Greek word elektron which means amber.

Posterity awards Thales credit for his contribution to its discovery. Less value is given to the consent given by his collaborator, which happened to be a cat.

Yes. It was a cat. The amber rubbed on its fur charged up thereby allowing it to attract things. A fitting metaphor for the ability of cats to attract attention, luck, and inspiration.

History is replete with stories of how cats helped humans attain and achieve something. Cats were and continue to be important for humans to think outside the box, for the inside is always occupied by them.

Boxes, however, fail to accurately measure the scope and space of assistance felines have bestowed upon humanity. It is far too small. Think of something bigger. Like say, the size of a universe. But how does one even measure the size of something really big like the universe? One man man took up that challenge.

Hubble basketball

Edwin Hubble, c.1910 ©University of Chicago

Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) was a man whose early years suggested glory as an athlete instead of an astronomer. Before looking at shooting stars, he was shooting hoops playing as forward for the University of Chicago’s 1907 conference title winning team. Not only did he dazzle in the basketball court, but he also blazed on the race track in high school and college.

His early college years were spent studying law in the University of Chicago and Oxford University. But he was dissatisfied with it. Hubble wanted to make the law himself. And he did, actually.

When his father died in 1913, he had no motivation left to pursue the practice of law, as he only studied it out of compliance to his father’s request and wish. He wanted to pursue what he always wanted to do: science, so he went back to the University of Chicago after some time being a high school physics teacher and basketball coach. He later obtained his PhD in 1917 for his study titled Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae.

Hubble’s continued exploration of the cosmos led to his finding that the universe is actually really big. Even bigger than what was thought before. Looking through the lens of the Hooker Telescope in the Mount Wilson Observatory where he was stationed, he found nebulae that were beyond the edges of the known milky way (at that time). What this means is that there are other galaxies in existence outside our own; one of which is the Andromeda galaxy.

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.”

-Edwin Hubble

The next step was to measure the distance between these galaxies. Hubble used redshift data to get a sense of how far these galaxies were. Visible light has wavelengths between 400 to 750 nanometers (nm), with violet at the 400nm and red at the 700nm extremes. Light wavelength from farther sources tend to be wider, thus its appears to be redder in the spectrum. Using this idea, Hubble found out that there were galaxies quite near the earth and there were galaxies that were really really far. He deduced from these findings that the universe was actually expanding. The rate to which other galaxies are moving away, hence expanding, is directly proportional to its distance from Earth: the farther they are, the faster they are receding from our planet.

Hubble was finally able to lay down his own law. The directly proportional relationship of a galaxy’s distance from Earth to its recessional velocity came to be known as Hubble’s law.

Like a cat chasing the red light, Hubble focused on data from the red spectrum to find more support for his findings. Perhaps, to such an extent that maybe even Hubble himself turned red in the spectrum, as a cat found its way to the Hubble home in 1946.

Hubble

Edwin Hubble and Nicolas Copernicus

Grace Hubble and her husband Edwin were graced with a new feline family member – a black cat from the cosmos. Baptized after the renaissance giant who correctly removed the earth from center stage and replaced it with the sun, the kitten was named Nicolas Copernicus.

Made the star of the home and spoiled like a child, the Hubble family named their house Nicolas’ Estate. Demonstrating, through correct scientific admission, the central position of cats in the lives of humans.

Despite Nicolas’ lack of formal scientific training, he was a fundamental part of Hubble’s later works. In a diary entry, Grace writes that she once found Nicolas expanding his fur-laden dark galaxy of a body over Hubble’s desk and papers when she entered her husband’s study. Hubble explained, “he is helping me.” We may not know the full extent of Nicolas’ contributions to Hubble’s work. Perhaps some might have been written by Nicolas himself and were only wrongly attributed to Hubble. Who knows?

But the relationship soon ended. Life moved faster than the movement of galaxies, and it soon left Hubble’s body. He died of a blood clot in the brain in 1953. In Hubble’s last living moments, Nicolas was closely beside him on his bed. Hubble took his last breath and bid farewell to Grace and Nicolas as he floated to the cosmos to further explore the edges of the universe.

Long after Hubble’s death, Nicolas continued to look out by the porch of his estate, waiting for Hubble to come back. Long years of patiently waiting moved Nicolas away from any scientific activity. This ennui ended when Nicolas joined Hubble in 1962 to continue their cosmic quest, uninterrupted by the inconveniences of life.

No need for telescopes, this time.

Not content with just filling boxes, cats have now colonized the internet successfully annexing it to their territory. We can expect very soon that, following Nicolas’ example, they will extend their reach throughout the expanding universe as they chase the receding red light.

Hubble and cat

©Huntington Library

 

References:


Christianson, Gale. Edwin Hubble: mariner of the cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996

Biography of Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). 2010. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20110630015230/http://hubble.nasa.gov/overview/hubble_bio.php

Wehrey, Catherine. Hubble and Copernicus. 2012. Retrieved from http://huntingtonblogs.org/2012/11/hubble-and-copernicus

 

 

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