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.