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Edwin Hubble made the two most important discoveries in cosmology. First, he proved that many nebulae are other "island universes" or galaxies, beyond the boundaries of the Milky Way.
Then, working alongside colleagues at the Mount Wilson Observatory, he discovered that these galaxies are moving apart from one another \u2013 in effect that the universe is expanding.
In the second half of the 1920s, Hubble was still primarily interested in measuring the distances to galaxies. He was intrigued by a discovery that had been made in the previous decade by Vesto Slipher, an astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Slipher had been working with a 24-inch (61- cm) refracting telescope that had a new instrument called a spectrograph attached to it.
This could make photographs of the spectra of faint astronomical objects, by adding up the light over several nights if necessary. Among the objects Slipher studied in this way were several of the family then still known as nebulae, which Hubble was about to prove were actually external galaxies.
By 1925, just when Hubble was beginning to measure distances to galaxies, Slipher had measured 41 of these spectra, and found that just two of them (including the Andromeda Nebula) showed blueshifts, while 39 showed redshifts. This was the limit of what he could do with the 24-inch telescope, but the evidence hinted that the galaxies that looked bigger and brighter had smaller redshifts.
The obvious inference was that galaxies that look bigger and brighter are closer to us \u2013 so Hubble guessed that measuring redshifts might be a way of measuring distances to galaxies, and roped in his co-worker Milson Humason to test the idea with the 100-inch (250-cm) telescope. Humason measured the redshifts, while Hubble estimated the distances to the same galaxies using other methods.
By the beginning of the 1930s, Hubble and Humason had made enough observations to show that the relationship between redshift and distance is about as straightforward as it could possibly be: the redshift is proportional to the distance \u2013 or, putting it the way round that mattered to Hubble, distance is proportional to redshift.
This is now known as Hubble's Law. It means that if one galaxy has twice the redshift of another it is twice as far away, and so on. Once the distances to a few nearby galaxies had been measured by other means, the rule could be calibrated, and distances to other galaxies, much farther away across the universe, could be measured simply by measuring their redshifts.
In fact, this simple law only applies accurately to relatively nearby galaxies, and a more subtle relationship applies farther out across the universe, but this does not detract from the importance of Hubble's discovery.
Hubble himself was not interested in why the light from galaxies showed redshifts. All he cared about was how the redshift (whatever its cause) could be used to measure distances. But the natural guess people made at first was that the redshifts are caused by the Doppler effect.
If so, it meant that just two external galaxies (including Andromeda) are moving towards us, and all the rest are moving away \u2013 not as individuals, but as members of clusters like the Virgo Cluster. It was soon realised, however, that this recession of the galaxies is not caused by galaxies and clusters moving through space.
Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which he had completed in 1915, described how space itself could be bent by the presence of matter, like a stretched rubber sheet with a heavy weight on it. The equations also described how space as a whole could stretch, but in 1915 nebulae hadn't even been identified as external galaxies, and Einstein had dismissed this as a trick of the mathematics with no physical significance.
After the discovery of the redshift\u2013distance relationship, Einstein and other mathematicians realised that this was exactly what his equations described \u2013 space itself stretching and carrying clusters of galaxies along with it. This was the beginning of modern cosmology.
The cosmological redshift is not a Doppler effect. It is not caused by galaxies moving through space, but by the space between the galaxies stretching during the time it takes light to get from one galaxy to another, and stretching the light to longer wavelengths.
Galaxies do move through space, producing Doppler effects in their spectra, but these are simply added to or subtracted from the cosmological redshift \u2013 which is why, for example, Andromeda shows a blueshift. It is moving towards us through space faster than the space between us and Andromeda is expanding. But for all except the nearest galaxies, the cosmological redshift dominates.
The usual way to get a picture of what is going on is to imagine a perfectly round rubber ball with spots of paint spattered on it. If the ball is pumped up so that it expands, all the spots will move apart from one another, not because they are moving through the rubber skin of the ball, but because the skin is stretching.
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