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Phil-osophically Speaking - September 25, 2009

This month the Hubble Telescope, named after the 20th century’s greatest astronomer, Edwin Hubble, has resumed, for the final time, its routine operation as a searchlight into eternity. Sometime after 2014, the space telescope will de-orbit and eventually burn up in the earth’s atmosphere.

In 1984, I belonged to an astronomy club where we budding astronomers would gather at Jones Beach, away from the city lights, to peer deep into the heavens. That summer, Mars was making its closest approach to the earth and we were hoping to get a good glimpse of it.

Along with Mars, the hot topic was the launching of the Hubble telescope, which was rescheduled for 1986. Get ready to throw out all your astronomy textbooks, we were told; our understanding of the cosmos is about to undergo a drastic change.

The planets and the stars always fascinated me. My Uncle Frank repaired telescopes and microscopes and when I was about seven or eight my parents bought me a telescope for Christmas. It was a simple instrument, suitable for someone my age who wants to get a closer look at the moon. One of my childhood enthusiasms was to spend my evenings, like a little Galileo, searching the night skies.

A couple of years later, I was with my Uncle Ed who owned a 26–foot boat and was a part time sailor. Like all sailors, he had a working knowledge of the stars. A million of them seemed to be twinkling above when he fed me this bit of tantalizing news: You know some of the stars you are looking at don’t exist anymore - they burned out hundreds, maybe thousands of years earlier.

“Then why,” I asked, “do I see them?” “Because they are so far away it takes millions of years for the light to reach us.” “You mean, Uncle Ed, it’s like a mirage?” “Well, sort of  - when you look at the stars you are really looking back in time - the way things were a very long time ago.”

It was an explanation that beguiled my 10-year old brain but it also fired my imagination, fusing my two passions, space and time travel, into what seemed to me, one gigantic, fascinating enigma. Space as a looking glass into eternity was something I never would have believed and it seeded a hunger in me for the nature and origins of our universe.

Such mysteries captivated others on a much grander scale - among them was Edwin Hubble.

Hubble was born in Springfield, Missouri, in 1889, to God-fearing Baptist parents. He seemed destined more for the gridiron than looking at the end of a long obelisk instrument into boundless space. Tall, broad shouldered and with the rugged good looks of a Robert Mitchum, Hubble set state track and field records, was an amateur heavyweight boxing champion and a football prospect of such promise that the legendary coach Alonzo Stagg, wanted him to play for the University of Chicago’s football team.

But Hubble’s muse led him north of Los Angeles overlooking the valley of Hollywood, land of the stars. Hubble would be on a first name basis with many of those early Hollywood celebrities but this was not what brought him there. Some 5,700 feet above the valley was Mount Wilson Observatory whose dome domiciled, with its 100-inch reflector mirror, the largest telescope in the world. It was not the cinematic stars that lived below, but the celestial stars that shined above that Hubble found so absorbing.

From the top of Mount Wilson the view of space and time was transcendent. With a lit pipe firmly clenched in his teeth, Hubble sat in the cold, dark and dank observatory and, like a modern day Lewis and Clark, mapped man’s final frontier. Mount Wilson became for him what the Menlo Park lab was for Thomas Edison, his home, his cathedral and his single- minded obsession.

He possessed the uncanny skill of finding his way around the sky, noticing nuances and even the slightest changes. Soon he began to see things that troubled him very deeply, so deeply, in fact, that he couldn’t even admit it to himself. Everywhere he looked, the light in the galaxies appeared to be receding from ours. As incredible as it seemed, the universe was not static and eternal, but looked as if it were expanding. But expanding, for God sakes, into what? Moreover, the further away the galaxies were, the faster they were receding from each other.  

This was a shocking revelation and its implications were mind-boggling. If everything is flying apart, reversing the arrow of time would mean that at some point all of these galaxies were compressed together in an infinitesimally small but unimaginable density that exploded in a moment of time. It meant the universe had a beginning and ever since this “Big Bang” it has been expanding from the energy of that explosion like hot air expands a balloon.

It all seemed like science fiction. But 4,000 miles away, at a time when Hubble was focused on nothing more than rewriting the high school record book, an unprepossessing, 26-year old patent clerk began explaining it through a series of complicated mathematical equations. In what can only be described as a sunburst of intellectual insight and imagination, Einstein had, incredibly, conceived in his miraculous mind what years later Hubble saw with his own eyes.

A colleague once asked Albert Einstein if he kept a notebook to record his ideas. Einstein replied he didn’t need to since he seldom had any. If that’s true then when he did have one, well – well - Good God!

But Einstein’s equations, ingenious and original as they were, remained theoretical and esoteric until someone could establish a point of reference outside the realm of cerebration. When a journalist asked the brilliant astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, if it was true that he was only one of three people in the world who understood Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity there was, from Sir Arthur, a pregnant pause. When pressed, he replied, “I am just trying to think who the other two could possibly be.”

As the science writer Robert Kunzig noted: If Einstein was the founding theorist of our modern universe, Hubble was the founding observer. Without Hubble’s painstaking observations and measurements no one would have believed Einstein - perhaps not even Einstein himself. After Hubble, the size of the universe increased 100-fold and one now had to reckon with an entity that dwarfed the human enterprise.

In the 17th century, Pascal, the French mathematician, theologian and philosopher gazed heavenward and wrote.,“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” What, one wonders, would Pascal have thought of the new Hubble universe? The facts regarding its dimensions are staggering: Our Sun, an average star, has a mass a million times greater than the earth and, yet, there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth.

The next time you are at the beach, pick up a handful of sand and just think about that. With all these countless suns, not to mention planets, comets and asteroids, space one surmises, must be a crowded place. Actually, at one hundred billion light years across, it is about as crowded as two and a half bees flying in the airspace of Europe.

Science can make one feel small but, perhaps, not unimportant. The writer G.K. Chesterton certainly thought so: “I would no more surrender my dignity to the universe because it is bigger than I am,” said Chesterton, “than I would the nearest tree.”  

Chutzpah - perhaps. But one of the most amazing things about the universe is humans have largely comprehended it. From the subatomic world to the intergalactic depths of space and time it is we who have plumbed the grand mysteries of nature and not the other way around. We have figured out the fundamental laws of physics, the laws of universal gravity and quantum mechanics, the properties of light, the revolutions of the planets, the expansion of space, the emergence of sentient life and have even glimpsed back to the beginning of time.

Is there something God-like in these exhilarating mental powers that liberates us from darkness and ignorance? Is it too much to suggest, as Isaac Newton did, when he discovered, one by one, the laws of the universe by writing in homage to his God “that I think thy thoughts after thee.” This is a question that science, much less I, can never address. What we can say, however, is that it was the existence of something rather than nothing that moved Newton, Einstein and Hubble to thoughts and deeds that caused a revolution about how we think about the universe and our place in it. On its final mission, the Hubble telescope continues that grand legacy into the future and beyond.