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Bonds Between AAAS and Hubble Span Three Decades

As NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 30 years, a look at its scientists’ AAAS connections

The “Cosmic Reef” image released by NASA on Hubble’s 30th anniversary shows a star-forming region 163,000 light-years away. | NASA, ESA, AND STScI

On New Year’s Day, 1925, Henry Russell, director of the Princeton University Observatory, presented to the joint meeting of the Amer­ican Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Astronomical Society a research paper that would change humanity’s understanding of the Universe and our place in it. Busy with ongoing observations at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, the paper’s author, Edwin Hubble, mailed his work to the meeting rather than traveling to Washington, D.C., to present it himself.

Using Mount Wilson’s 100-inch telescope — the world’s largest from 1917 to 1949 — Hubble had taken images of the Andromeda Nebula, determining that it is a galaxy of its own, composed of individual stars. The observation proved that our Milky Way does not take up nearly the entire universe, as many astronomers of the time believed, but instead is one galaxy of many.

“This paper is the product of a young man of conspicuous and rec­ognized ability in a field which he has made peculiarly his own,” Russell and Joel Stebbins, secretary of the American Astronomical Society, wrote in a letter to the AAAS Committee on Awards. “It has already ex­panded one hundred-fold the known volume of the material universe.”

Of approximately 1,700 scientists who shared research at the meeting, the committee chose two — Hubble and a zoologist named L. R. Cleveland — to share the 1924 Thousand Dollar Prize, an award honoring the most noteworthy contributions to science presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting each year. Now called the Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the yearly award goes to the author or authors of a particularly impactful paper published in Science.

“The Association Prize will never be awarded to a more appre­ciative student than your present choice,” Hubble wrote to AAAS secretary Burton Livingston in February 1925. “The occasion of the reward, however, must be regarded as a triumph of modern instru­ments rather than a personal achievement. … This was accomplished by the use of the largest telescopes in existence.”

Decades later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched into Earth orbit an instrument exponentially larger and more precise than anything available to Hubble, and it bore his name. In April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope became the first major optical telescope to be placed in space. Free from the atmospheric distortion and light pollution faced by land-based telescopes, Hubble has provided data leading to more than 17,000 peer-reviewed publi­cations on topics including star formation, galaxy mergers, and dark matter, the largely unseen mass that occupies most of the universe.

NASA is celebrating a series of the Hubble mission’s 30th-anniver­sary milestones this year, from the launch in April to its “first light” image in May and its observations of Supernova 1987A in August. Throughout the mission’s first three decades, AAAS has honored its scientists with awards and fellowships and used their expertise to guide AAAS programs. AAAS and Hubble also overlap in their vision for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) enterprise, as both work to enhance public engagement, educate and diversify the STEM workforce, and foster international collaboration.

“Hubble, slam dunk, aligns with almost all of them,” astronomer Kathryn Flanagan said of AAAS’s goals.

Prior to retiring in March, Flanagan oversaw the Hubble mission as deputy director and interim director of the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), a nonprofit science center oper­ated for NASA and responsible for Hubble’s science operations and public outreach. She also chaired AAAS’s astronomy section in 2016 and was inducted as an elected AAAS fellow this year, the latest of dozens of Hubble-affiliated scientists to receive the honor.

“Hubble was, when I assessed it a few years back, contributing as a recommended or required component in half the state departments of education in the U.S.,” Flanagan said, referencing the prevalence of the telescope’s findings in public school curricula. “It reached half the public middle school students in the country.”

Flanagan also highlighted the Hubble mission’s dedication to international collaboration through its partnership with the European Space Agency in development and operations, publicly available archives, research time allotted to scientists from around the world, and a double-anonymous peer-review process, which ensures that unconscious bias does not play a role in determining which research proposals are selected. Many AAAS programs, including Science in the Classroom, the Center for Science Diplomacy, and SEA Change, have a similar focus on science education, international collabora­tion, and achieving equity in STEM disciplines.


Hubble was deployed from the space shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990. | NASA

Carol Christian, Hubble Space Telescope outreach project scientist at STScI, works to share the mission’s discoveries with the world. Christian is part of the Hubble news team, highlighting science results from hundreds of refereed papers each year. Additionally, she leads a program that brings Hubble data to individuals with blindness and visual impairments using 3D printing.

Christian also has served as a screener for the AAAS Kavli Sci­ence Journalism Awards since 2010. Each year, approximately 70 scientists volunteer to assess the scientific accuracy of the award program’s print, digital, and video reporting candidates. Christian said that the review panels consist of researchers from diverse disci­plines, including geology and the life sciences.

“You learn a lot from the people that are your fellow reviewers,” she said.

Prior to working with the Kavli Awards, Christian brought her expertise in satellite imagery to the U.S. Department of State, where she worked from 2003 to 2007 through the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program, which places more than 250 scientists each year in policy roles across all three branches of the federal government. She enjoyed putting her scientific knowledge to practical use during her time as a fellow.

“Suddenly, to be doing something that actually has import — policy may depend on it, economics may depend on it — that was pretty interesting,” Christian said.

Margaret Burbidge, an influential astrophysicist who died in April at the age of 100, was perhaps the first scientist to contribute to both the Hubble mission and AAAS. During her term as president of AAAS in 1983, she was on the team that developed the Faint Object Spectro­graph, one of the five science instruments on Hubble when it launched. Burbidge and her colleagues designed the instrument to detect the physical and chemical properties of faint objects in galaxies beyond our own, and it provided the first strong observational evidence for the existence of a supermassive black hole in the core of another galaxy.

“She was one of the names that we all knew of as pioneers in the field of modern astronomy,” astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman said following Burbidge’s death. “An inspirational person as a brilliant sci­entist and in particular as a courageous woman scientist who opened up the field for many of us coming later on.”

Like Burbidge did for a time, Wiseman works with the Hubble Space Telescope and is also active in AAAS activities. As Hubble’s senior project scientist, Wiseman works with a team of scientists and engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to keep the telescope as scientifically productive as possible.

Prior to her NASA career, Wiseman served as an American Physical Society congressional science fellow, a role under the umbrella of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. She brought her subsequent connection with Hubble to a broad AAAS audience by co-organizing a symposium on the Hubble Space Telescope mission — its scientific discoveries, image processing feats, and future promise — at the AAAS 2015 Annual Meeting, and she has given Hubble overview talks at subsequent AAAS gatherings.

Since 2010, Wiseman has also directed the AAAS Dialogue on Sci­ence, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program, which works to foster communication between scientific and religious communities.

“Being an active scientist while attentive to public science engage­ment helps me to recognize how scientists and the other com­munities that DoSER works with — including ethicists and religious communities — can better understand each other and our common interests in science, technology, and their positive contributions to society,” Wiseman said.

“Astronomy in general gives everyone a sense of humility, awe, wonder, and curiosity,” she added. “I enjoy sharing with many types of public audiences the amazing things we’re discovering with telescopes and other scientific facilities. I’m very humbled and encouraged by how such discoveries can inspire deeper discussions of meaning and purpose and of using science to help one another, as we all ask ques­tions together of who we are as human beings in an awesome universe and how we can use our knowledge to uplift the human spirit.”


This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of Science.