"Great Debate" Academy of Sciences Washington DC - 26th April 1920

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

WE'RE NOT AS BIG AS WE THOUGHT, SAYS PROFESSOR Our Universe Only Small Corner in Crowd of Universes, National Academy of Science Convention Is Told 

WASHINGTON The announcement of startling discoveries in the field of astronomy was made here last night at the opening session of the National Academy of Sciences. Before a gathering of distinguished scientists from all parts of the country, H. B. Curtis, an astronomer at Lick observatory, California, said the latest powerful telescope had discovered the possible existence of a million universes instead of one.  By means of new observation devices, he maintained, a galaxy of spiral nebulae had been seen. Each of these, he said, was, in reality, an "island universe," and were distant more than 10,000 light-years from the earth. A light-year is roughly estimated by scientists to be about six trillion miles.  More than a million of these nebulae had been counted. Dr. Curtis stated. He explained at length his contention that each of the nebulae was in itself a universe, composed of countless stars, situated in the furthermost reaches of space. 

CONFIRM THEORY  Dr. Harlow Shapely of the Mount Wilson observatory, Pasadena, announced he had discovered a simple device whereby the power of the 100-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson observatory was increased several times. This telescope is the largest In the world and required three years to construct.  Dr. Shapely plans to give his device to the scientific world. He stated that observations made with the great telescope at Mount Wilson confirmed the existence, of the spiral nebulae, which Dr. Curtis believes are individual universes.  The use of the Mount Wilson telescope. Dr. Shapely said, had resulted in setting aside some of the older theories regarding the universe, which observations flowed to be ten times greater in volume than was formerly believed.  Recently secured evidence, he said, showed that many facts regarding the dimensions and composition of the milky way are erroneous. He claims that it takes light about 300,000 years to cross from one side to the other of the space occupied by the three billion stars of which our sun is the nearest one. The vastness of this distance could be measured he said as it had been established long ago that light travels at the rate of 180,000 miles a second.  Dr Shapley, while confirming the existence of the spiral nebulae which are believed by Dr. Curtis to be island universes, took issue with the latter as to their remoteness. Dr. Curtis defended the older view advanced by Simon Newcomb that the milky way is approximately 30,000 light-years in diameter. The spiral nebulae, he said, were island universes each composed of 3,000,000,000 stars. The inhabitants of the nebulae, he said, would see our own milky way as a spiral nebula. He described the nebulae as "clamshell-like cloudy luminous objects.”  Prof. A. A. Michaelson, of Chicago, told the academy of new modifications of his famous invention, the interferometer. In connection with the experiments with the giant telescope at Mount Wilson. By means of this invention, he said, astronomers are now able to study the distance between binary stars, a problem which had heretofore baffled the scientific world. 


Wisconsin State Journal Madison, Wisconsin 27 Apr 1920, Tue  •  Page 4