«A few years ago I visited the hometown of V.M. Slipher, Frankfort, Indiana. On the Frankfort town square there’s a mural showing the most famous ...»
Edwin Hubble’s Silence Don Lago
A few years ago I visited the hometown of V.M. Slipher, Frankfort, Indiana.
On the Frankfort town square there’s a mural showing the most famous people
who came from Frankfort. There’s Will Brimley, the actor, and there’s the lady who
created the Dick and Jane books. There’s no V.M. Slipher. I went to the county
historical society, which is housed in the old high school that VM Slipher attended.
There are no exhibits about V.M. Slipher. When I asked the museum director about V.M. Slipher, she identified him as “a member of the team that discovered Pluto.” There are still some Sliphers in Frankfort, and I arranged to go and visit them.
One of their families was still living in the house where V.M. Slipher grew up. The Sliphers gave me directions to their house, which required making a left turn at an old- fashioned drive-in cafe that was famous for its milk shakes. It was called the Milky Way.
Thus the directions to V.M. Slipher’s house were: “Turn left at the Milky Way.” The Sliphers were great hosts, and they spent a whole hour showing me around their huge barn, which was “the oldest barn in Clinton County.” It included some farm equipment so ancient that V.M. Slipher probably used it as a kid. But I was surprised to discover that some of the Sliphers thought that V.M. Slipher’s most important work was that he supervised the search for Pluto. I had to explain to them that V.M. Slipher had done some other research, on the motions of the galaxies, and that Edwin Hubble had used Slipher’s research to prove that the universe is expanding.
This struck me as a rather strange and sad situation. There I was in the house where V.M. Slipher grew up, talking with the Slipher family, and I had to explain to them why V.M. Slipher was important.
2 Unfortunately, this lack of recognition for Slipher’s work has also been true in the writing of astronomy history. As evidence for this I’ll point to the book that, for a quarter of a century, was the primary history book about the idea of the expanding universe, The Red Limit, by Timothy Ferris. Ferris mentions Edwin Hubble on 27 pages, Harlow Shapley on 21 pages, Einstein on 39 pages, George Hale on 11 pages, and Fred Hoyle and his steady-state theory get an entire chapter. How many pages does VM Slipher get? In a 200-page book, Slipher and his work get about half a page. But I’m not blaming Ferris for this. He was just repeating a habit that had already existed for nearly half a century.
I’ve done a survey of dozens of astronomy books that deal with the expanding universe, especially books published in the 1930s, when this story was first being defined. It’s a widespread pattern that VM Slipher gets short notice, and sometimes none at all.
This pattern was established early on. One of the first important books about the subject was Arthur Eddington’s The Expanding Universe in 1933, and he too only briefly mentions Slipher. Eddington was mainly interested in relativity theory and its varied theoretical, mathematical cosmologies, and he gives the theorists the credit for the idea of the expanding universe. The first sentence in his book is: “The first hint of an ‘expanding universe’ is contained in a paper published in November 1917 by Prof. W.
de Sitter.” Of course, 1917 was three years after VM Slipher announced his findings that most galaxies are red-shifted, which offered far more than a hint about the expanding universe. Several important astronomers, including Slipher himself, felt that
seem. Eddington’s version of events is a misleading picture of astronomical history.
The leading observational astronomers of that generation were not inspired by relativity theory; they were following a logical chain of inquiry that had been developing for a long time. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: they finally had the technology to explore questions astronomers had been wondering about for a long time. But Eddington’s approach, and the powerful aura of Albert Einstein, has left its imprint on astronomical history, and it could leave readers with the impression that observers like Slipher were merely technicians who were validating Einstein’s ideas. So this is one reason why Slipher has been neglected.
But it’s not the main reason. For many authors, this story is mainly the story of Edwin Hubble. V.M. Slipher and Harlow Shapley may receive brief mentions, but it’s often not clear that these two men provided the two halves of the equation—cosmic velocities plus cosmic distances—that Hubble put together to produce the expanding universe. One author lumped Slipher in with several other astronomers who had studied redshifts, as if there was nothing special about Slipher’s work. If a book was written by a professional astronomer, especially one who was working in this era and who watched the story unfold, there was a much better chance that it gave Slipher’s work a larger role, and sometimes generous praise. But often enough, the only name in the story is that of Edwin Hubble.
This pattern began with the James Jeans book The Universe Around Us, which Jeans finished only two months after Hubble published his findings in 1929. The next year Jeans published another important book interpreting modern astronomy, The
and make no mention of Slipher. This could have been influenced by the fact that Jeans had spent some time at Mt. Wilson Observatory and become good friends with Hubble. Jeans makes an obvious reference to Slipher’s work: “…it has for some years been remarked that the remote spiral nebulae are, to all appearances, rushing away from the earth, and so presumably from one another, at terrific speeds…”1 But he doesn’t mention Slipher by name.
The first time that most of the general public heard about the expanding universe was probably in January, 1931 when newspapers all over America reported on Albert Einstein’s visit to Mt. Wilson, during which he endorsed the idea of the expanding universe. Again, these articles didn’t mention Slipher.
Edwin Hubble certainly deserves to be celebrated. But the huge discrepancy between Hubble’s fame and Slipher’s neglect is really not deserved. I’ll illustrate this discrepancy with another adventure in astronomical tourism.
If you drive into Edwin Hubble’s hometown, Marshfield, Missouri, you’ll see state highway signs on Interstate 44 proclaiming this to be the “Edwin Hubble Memorial Highway.” You’ll see billboards inviting you to get off the interstate to see a replica of the Hubble Space Telescope. This stainless steel replica is on the courthouse square, and it is 1/4th scale and weighs over half a ton. A mural on the town square shows Edwin Hubble, and there’s a public school in town named for him. For years the local newspaper depicted on its masthead the Hubble Space Telescope. In the county historical museum there are several display cases devoted to Hubble, and you can buy
Edwin Hubble souvenirs, including a bumper sticker that says: “Marshfield, Mo:
So why is it that the story of the expanding universe is usually the story of Edwin Hubble? I’d like to offer you an obscure episode from astronomical history that may go right to the heart of this question.
It was in the summer of 1928 that Edwin Hubble began his work to correlate Slipher’s studies of galactic redshifts with his own studies of galactic distances. It was half a year later, on January 17, 1929, that Hubble submitted his findings to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Right in the middle of that half year, Edwin Hubble traveled to Flagstaff and met with V.M. Slipher. Both before and after this visit Hubble wrote to Slipher about his visit, and Slipher wrote two letters to others about Hubble’s visit. From all the evidence, it appears that Hubble never said a word to Slipher about being right in the middle of using Slipher’s research to transform the universe. At the least, this silence is symbolic, a foretelling of the silence with which astronomical history would often treat Slipher’s work.
Edwin Hubble’s journey to Flagstaff didn’t have anything to do with Slipher’s research. That same summer George Hale was trying to select a location for his planned 200-inch telescope. Hale was a very insecure man to begin with, and now he had good reasons to feel insecure about his judgment about observatory locations.
Hale had ignored all the boastings of Los Angeles boosters that their town of 100,000 people would soon be a giant metropolis glowing with bright lights, and Hale had placed Mt. Wilson Observatory right where it was doomed to be rendered blind. For his 200inch telescope Hale took pains to devise an elaborate process for testing possible sites.
four-inch and two-inch telescopes, but they had lots of special features. Hale designed an elaborate system for comparing test observations from different sites.
On September 30, 1928, the New York Times ran a nearly full-page article announcing that the best place in the world for an astronomical observatory was the rim of the Grand Canyon. At least, this was the conviction of George Ritchey. Ritchey had been Hale’s master telescope designer, the man who had figured out how to build giant reflecting telescopes, but Ritchey and Hale had a falling out and now were bitter rivals.
Ritchey was now working for the Paris Observatory.
Ritchey had first visited the Grand Canyon in 1907, and he continued visiting it for years, and at some point he became obsessed with the idea of building a great observatory on the canyon rim. It may be true that the Grand Canyon offers Earth’s most awesome view of deep time and the forces of creation, but this does not apply to its view of the sky. In truth, the hot updrafts welling out of the canyon bottom create a great deal of turbulence on the rim, and this makes the rim a terrible spot for astronomical seeing. But Ritchey drew up plans for a 25-story tall observatory with a Romanesque design, and he made a drawing of this observatory on the canyon rim.
And now the New York Times was proclaiming that Ritchey’s plans were brilliant.
George Hale must have been unnerved. A few days later he ordered Edwin Hubble to drop everything and rush to the Grand Canyon to make observing tests.
Hubble wrote to V.M. Slipher saying that he was coming. “Mr. Hale is rather anxious for me to start as soon as possible—I am writing within a few hours of his communication—so I shall take the liberty of asking you to wire me as to whether the
Hubble was somewhat secretive about the purpose of his visit, not admitting that it was related to building the world’s greatest telescope. All he said was that he was looking into “a proposed plan for another observing station in the Southwest.”3 Hubble did tell Slipher that he wanted to talk with him—about seeing conditions in northern Arizona.
Hubble visited Lowell Observatory for what Slipher called “a day or two,” in a letter Slipher wrote to a former Lowell astronomer.4 Slipher related various details about Hubble’s visit: “He was making tests with a 2-inch telescope!!”5 Slipher used two explanation marks here, which I’ll mention in a few minutes. Slipher was underestimating the value of the test telescopes that Hale and Porter had designed, but his skepticism was probably also due to his familiarity with the Grand Canyon and his recognition that the canyon rim was a wildly inappropriate site for an observatory. On January 12, 1929 Slipher wrote to Roger Lowell Putnam: “Dr. Hubble was over this fall making some tests…He had only a two inch aperture telescope for the work!” Another exclamation mark. “And he thought he was getting worth while tests…”6 Roger Lowell Putnam was the trustee of Lowell Observatory, to whom Slipher was usually eager to report news that reflected well on the observatory. Remember, these were tough years for Lowell Observatory. This was before Pluto, and this was the decade when the observatory’s survival was in doubt. You might think that if the famous Edwin Hubble had traveled to Lowell Observatory and mentioned that he was right in the middle of using Slipher’s redshift data to revolutionize astronomy, Slipher would have mentioned it
letters Slipher wrote about it, there is no hint that Hubble ever said a word about what he was doing with Slipher’s research.
There could be innocent explanations for this silence. Perhaps Hubble did say something to Slipher, and Slipher didn’t tell anyone. Or perhaps like any scientist in the middle of doing research, especially revolutionary research, Hubble didn’t want to go around blabbing about it before it was finished. Perhaps.
But there was nothing innocent about Edwin Hubble’s silence when he published his velocity/distance paper in 1929. Hubble included no citation of V.M. Slipher’s contribution. This was amazing because Slipher’s redshift data had been well-known in the world of astronomy for fifteen years and many of those reading Hubble’s paper would recognize that Hubble was using Slipher’s work. This silence was a major breach of scholarly protocol. And I think it also initiated the silence with which astronomical history would often treat Slipher’s work.
Why was Hubble silent about Slipher’s work? It’s impossible to avoid the matter of Edwin Hubble’s personality. Almost all the biographical accounts about Hubble, even those written by his protégés and admirers, agree that he was not a modest or generous man. Indeed, Harlow Shapley regarded Hubble as an absurdly vain and
pompous man, to the point of dishonesty. In his autobiography Shapley complained:
“The work that Hubble did on galaxies was very largely using my methods…He never acknowledged my priority, but there are people like that.”7 There’s also the matter of institutional rivalry. This generation of astronomers came of age before the age of big science, deep academic support, and tenured