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Almost 70 years ago, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered the Big Bang and gave the universe a beginning. Now U of C physicists are part of a vast scientific conspiracy to end it.

by William Burton

Back in 1919, a young astronomer from Wheaton, Illinois, named Edwin Hubble arrived at the Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains overlooking Los Angeles. Hubble had received his A.B. and his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he was a track star and played on the University’s 1909 national champion basketball team. Always with his trademark pipe, he was a rugged man who spoke, the late Carl Sagan, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60, once dryly noted, with a British accent acquired in a single year at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.

With the large telescopes at Mount Wilson, Hubble soon began expanding the known universe. Using celestial mile-markers called Cepheid variables to measure distances, he proved the existence of other galaxies far beyond our own Milky Way. He then measured the so-called red-shift, or Doppler effect, of the starlight from those distant galaxies to show that the universe itself was expanding. In 1929, he identified a relationship now known as Hubble’s Law: the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is rushing away from us.

This stunning proof of a huge and rapidly expanding universe pointed backward to a beginning of space and time, energy and matter.

For theologians, the discovery brought rapture: Here was the creation event, handed down to them by, of all people, scientists. But scientists themselves—many of whom clung to the notion of a static universe without beginning or end—felt disbelief and dejection. Albert Einstein was among those taken aback by Hubble’s idea, even though Hubble was not the first to show that Einstein’s 1916 theory of general relativity predicted an unstable universe. One of those who had co-opted Einstein’s equations to anticipate Hubble was the Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter. To de Sitter, Einstein wrote that the circumstance of an expanding universe “irritated” him. “To admit such possibilities seems senseless,” he lamented.

Even after Hubble’s discovery, other eminent scientists also remained obstinate. Arthur Eddington, the most distinguished British astronomer of the day, wrote: “The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me.” And the German chemist Walther Nernst warned: “To deny the infinite duration of time would be to betray the very foundations of science.”