Get ready to look up!
Edwin Hubble. (Photo credit: snaphappygeek)
At Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, for several years we’ve celebrated Hubble Day on December 30.
On December 30, 1924, Edwin Hubble announced he’d discovered other galaxies in distant space. Though it may not have been so clear at the time, it meant that, as a galaxy, we are not alone in the universe (whether we are alone as intelligent life is a separate question). It also meant that the universe is much, much bigger than most people had dared to imagine.
December 30, 2015 is the 91st anniversary of the announcement. When dealing with general science illiteracy, it’s difficult to believe we’ve been so well informed for more than nine decades. In some quarters, news travels more slowly than sound in the vacuum of space.
I find hope in many places. Just three years ago the Perot Museum of Nature and Science opened in downtown Dallas. It’s the old Dallas Museum of Science and Natural History, once cramped into a bursting building in historic Fair Park, now expanded into a beautiful new building downtown, and keeping the Fair Park building, too. Considering the strength of creationism in Texas, it’s great news that private parties would put up $185 million for a museum dedicated to hard science.
Displays in the Perot border on brilliance at almost every stop. Stuffy museum this is not — it’s designed to spark interest in science and engineering in kids, and I judge that it succeeds, though we need to wait 20 years or so to see just exactly what and who it inspires.
We visited the Perot regularly through 2014. On one visit in 2012, as I was admiring a large map of the Moon, a family strolled by, and a little girl I estimated to be 8 or 9 pointed to the Moon and asked her maybe-30-something father where humans landed. I had been working to see whether the very large photo showed any signs of activity — but the father didn’t hesitate, and pointed to the Sea of Tranquility. “There,” he said. The man was not old enough to have been alive at the time; I’d wager most of my contemporaries would hesitate, and maybe have to look it up. Not that guy.
On 32 flat-panel video displays hooked together to make one massive display, visitors to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science view Mars as our new Mars Rover’s friend might see it, in a section of the museum devoted to astronomy, physics, astronomy and planetary exploration. Photo by Ed Darrell; use encouraged with attribution.
Still, kids today need this museum and the knowledge and excitement it imparts. One recent July I accompanied a group of Scouts from Troop 355 to summer camp in Colorado, to Camp Chris Dobbins in the foothills just east of Colorado Springs. Near lights out one night I hiked the half-mile to our campsite admiring the Milky Way and other bright displays of stars that we simply do not get in light-polluted Dallas County. I expected that our older Scouts would have already started on the Astronomy merit badge, but the younger ones may not have been introduced. So I asked how many of them could find the Milky Way. Not a hand went up.
“Dowse the lights, let’s have a five minute star lesson,” I said. we trekked out to a slight opening in the trees, and started looking up. I had just enough time to point out the milky fog of stars we see of our own galaxy, when one of the Scouts asked how to tell the difference between an airplane and a satellite. Sure enough, he’d spotted a satellite quietly passing overhead — and just to put emphasis on the difference, a transcontinental jet passed over flying west towards Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Then, when we were all looking up, a meteoroid streaked from the south across almost the whole length of the visible Milky Way. Teenage kids don’t often go quiet all at once, but after the oohs and aahs we had a few moments of silence. They were hooked already. Less than five minutes in, they’d seen the Milky Way, found the Big Dipper, seen a satellite, a jet, and a shooting star.
Edwin Hubble’s discovery can now be the stuff of elementary school science, that the blobs in the sky astronomers had pondered for a century were really galaxies like our own, which we see only through a faint fuzz we call the Milky Way.
Do kids get that kind of stuff in elementary school? Not enough, I fear.
We named a great telescope after the guy; shouldn’t we do a bit more to celebrate his discovery?