Edwin Hubble: Oxford lawyer (almost)

Richard Birch discusses the University days of the Oxford lawyer turned revolutionary physicist

Edwin Hubble was, without doubt, one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. His impact on astronomy is immeasurable: he discovered the existence of other galaxies (and thus, that the universe was not limited to the Milky Way). His discovery that the rate of expansion of the universe was increasing was hugely important to the development of the nascent Big Bang Theory. It may come as a surprise, then, that Hubble’s studies at Queen’s College, Oxford, which followed his initial studies at Chicago, were distinctly non-scientific. Hubble’s degree at Oxford was instead Jurisprudence, to fulfil the wishes of his dying father. Fitting in the time to add in courses in Spanish and Literature, this teen track and field star from Illinois can only be described as suffering from an overbearing amount of talent. Indeed, even his high-school teacher couldn’t resist a quip upon realising the extent of Hubble’s talent: “Edwin Hubble, I have watched you for four years and I have never seen you study for ten minutes… Here is a scholarship for the University of Chicago.”

He was, as a matter of fact, one of the university’s most illustrious Rhodes scholars, as well as one of its first. What is interesting is how little association is ultimately drawn between Hubble and his alma mater. It makes sense, given that his future successes were predicated upon a change of course to his true intellectual passion, while his studies at Oxford were merely an obligation to his past.

It might have been hard to imagine Hubble as being one of the most famous scientists of all time in the years after his graduation, as he worked as a humble and much-beloved teacher in New Albany, Indiana. But his restless spirit remained, driving him to become a graduate student of astronomy once more at Chicago. It was here that his legacy was born, and one of the most significant physicists of all time wrote his first thesis, the discovery of the rate of expansion of the universe. The significance of this was not lost on Stephen Hawking, who noted of this discovery that it “was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th century”.

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Nor was it lost on the wider scientific community, who recognised (and still recognise) him through the naming of asteroids, craters, and of course, space telescopes. I think it quite likely that more people are familiar now with the Hubble Space Telescope than the man for whom it was named. If this suspicion is true, then it is a great shame that we have lost the knowledge to recognise the man who taught us more about where the universe has come from, and about the enormity of it, than anyone else. Ever charmingly humble, he merely said of his work: “Equipped with his five senses man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science”. Let us remember how this illustrious physicist started his academic career so differently, as a lawyer at Queen’s College, Oxford/