In 1919, now aged thirty, he moved to California and took up a position at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles. Swiftly, and more than a little unexpectedly, he became the most outstanding astronomer of the twentieth century.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how little was known of the cosmos at this time. Astronomers today believe there are perhaps 140 billion galaxies in the visible universe. That’s a huge number, much bigger than merely saying it would lead you to suppose. If galaxies were frozen peas, it would be enough to fill a large auditorium—the old Boston Garden, say, or the Royal Albert Hall. (An astrophysicist named Bruce Gregory has actually computed this.) In 1919, when Hubble first put his head to the eyepiece, the number of these galaxies that were known to us was exactly one: the Milky Way. Everything else was thought to be either part of the Milky Way itself or one of many distant, peripheral puffs of gas. Hubble quickly demonstrated how wrong that belief was.
Over the next decade, Hubble tackled two of the most fundamental questions of the universe: how old is it, and how big? To answer both it is necessary to know two things—how far away certain galaxies are and how fast they are flying away from us (what is known as their recessional velocity). The red shift gives the speed at which galaxies are retiring, but doesn’t tell us how far away they are to begin with. For that you need what are known as“standard candles”—stars whose brightness can be reliably calculated and used as benchmarks to measure the brightness (and hence relative distance) of other stars.