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You Can Never Have Too Much Sky

In 1929, Edwin Hubble published a paper that changed our view of the universe forever.

Building on Vesto Slipher’s pioneering work here at Lowell a decade earlier, Hubble showed that galaxies are racing away from us at speeds proportional to their distance. The inescapable conclusion was that the universe is expanding.

But Hubble overestimated the speed of this expansion by almost a factor of ten. That’s like a racecar driver who thinks he’s zipping around the track at 200 mph only to discover he’s actually crawling along at only 20 mph.

How did Hubble get it so wrong? The answer is simple: he needed more and better data.

The famed astronomer had data for only two dozen galaxies. It was the most extensive collection of galaxy data available at the time. But it wasn’t enough.

Astronomers of the past were starved for data because technology limited their ability to collect and share information. When Galileo first pointed his small telescope skyward in 1609, the only way he could record and share his discoveries was through words and drawings.

Times have changed. These days, astronomers feast on data. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an ambitious project to survey a big chunk of the sky, has cataloged more than a billion objects. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, under construction in Chile, will soon generate terabytes of astronomical images every night – far more than Edwin Hubble did in his entire career.

Why go to so much effort? Because data provides information, which leads to knowledge. And the more knowledge we have of the universe, the more confidence we can have in our conclusions about it. If he’d had more and better data, Hubble wouldn’t have gotten the speed of the universe’s expansion so wrong.

It’s the same in our lives. We’re all data collectors, mining the world for nuggets of truth. Each day brings new information, new knowledge, and, hopefully, new wisdom. But like Hubble’s speeding universe, our conclusions about life, love, and everything are likely to be wrong if we lack sufficient data.

When asked how long it took to complete his first novel, This Side of Paradise, the great American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald replied: “To write it – three months. To conceive it – three minutes. To collect the data in it – all my life.”

The best way to understand what life is about is to experience as much of it as possible. Every joy, every heartbreak, every new experience is a data point, bringing us new knowledge and expanding our horizons at the speed of life. And we can accelerate our data collecting by actively seeking out new experiences, enriching our lives in the process.

As the Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti said:

You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life.

In our quest to understand ourselves and the universe around us, there’s no substitute for data. As Edwin Hubble reminds us, you can never have too much sky.


Please note that Dr. West’s stories expire at the end of each month.

Dr. Michael West is Lowell Observatory’s Deputy Director for Science. He received his PhD in astronomy from Yale University and held research and teaching positions around the world before coming to Flagstaff. Find out more about his background and research interests here. Michael is also an enthusiastic writer, with publications in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Postand Scientific American, as well as author of a new book titled A Sky Wonderful With Stars, published by University of Hawaii Press.

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