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The Astronomer at the Museum: Miss Expanding Universe

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The Astronomer at the Museum: Miss Expanding Universe


Larry Faltz


Originally published in SkyWAAtch, the newsletter of Westchester Amateur Astronomers, January 2018



Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), Miss Expanding Universe, Art Institute of Chicago. Aluminum, 113.9 x 88.6 x 15.2 cm (40 7/8 x 34 7/8 x 9 in.)



The Art Institute of Chicago is a museum that I have always considered to be one of the best in the world, even though I’m a New Yorker and a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the Art Institute’s many treasures are three of the most recognizable (and most often caricatured) paintings on the planet: Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte.

As my wife and I were ambling through one of the American galleries on a visit in 2018, we looked up to see a figure hanging from the ceiling. It was Isamu Noguchi’s 1932 aluminum sculpture Miss Expanding Universe. We are great fans of this artist for his vast and brilliant output that includes such diverse works as portrait sculptures, furniture (we have a Noguchi-designed coffee table our living room), fountains, monumental abstract sculptures and vast garden installations. Any time we’re near Rockefeller Center we stop to marvel at the epic bas-relief panel News, installed over the entrance of 50 Rockefeller Plaza. It was made in 1940 for the Associated Press when the then-new building was its headquarters. The Isamu Noguchi Museum on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City is well worth a visit. It’s one of New York City’s lesser-known artistic treasures. Noguchi made quite a few costumes and sets for dance productions, most notably for Martha Graham and for George Balanchine’s Orpheus (1948), still in the repertoire of the New York City Ballet.

Left: Bas relief “News”, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York (1940). Stainless steel. Height: 22 feet. Upper right: Coffee table (1944). Glass and wood. H 15.75” L 50” W 36”. Lower right: Black Sun (1969), Volunteer Park, Seattle. Granite. Diameter 9 feet.


Noguchi made Miss Expanding Universe in 1932 after he, Chinese artist Qi Baishi and the futurist and designer Buckminster Fuller attended a series of lectures about Edwin Hubble’s recent discovery of the expansion of the universe. The work’s title was suggested by Fuller. How did this rather arcane topic reach these three artists?

The public was interested in the rapid progress in physics and astronomy that occurred in the early 20th century, as reflected in newspaper and magazine articles of the time. Readers of the New York Times were frequently exposed to scientific news and brought up to date about controversial theories. This was most famously evident in the “Heavens All Askew” headline on the front page of the Times on November 10, 1919, reporting the confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity by Arthur Eddington and Frank Dyson, who observed star positions during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919. The Times had already published a number of stories about Einstein and relativity and followed the “Heavens All Askew” article with two more over the next month.

Until Hubble’s work, many astronomers, perhaps most, thought that the Milky Way was the entire universe and the faint spiral-like or homogeneous patches scattered among the stars were either planetary systems in formation or collections of gas. In 1917 Harlow Shapley measured RR Lyrae variables in globular clusters to determine their distance. He calculated that the Milky Way’s diameter was 300,000 light years, far greater than anyone had previously suspected (prior values were from 7,000 to 30,000 light years; the current value is about 120,000 light years). He also established the Sun’s position within the galaxy, about halfway between the center and the edge. But he did not think that the spiral nebulas, so called, were extra-galactic. In the famous Great Debate between Shapley and Heber Curtis at the Smithsonian in 1920 (formally titled “The Distance Scale of the Universe”), he argued:

It seems to me that the evidence…is opposed to the view that the spirals are galaxies of stars comparable with our own. In fact, there appears as yet no reason for modifying the tentative hypothesis that the spirals are not composed of typical stars at all, but are truly nebulous objects.

Shapley hedged his bets a bit, concluding his presentation with:

But even if spirals fail as galactic systems, there may be elsewhere in space stellar systems equal to or greater than ours - as yet unrecognized and possibly quite beyond the power of existing optical devices and preset measuring scales. The modern telescope, however, with such accessories as high-power spectroscopes and photographic intensifiers, is destined to extend the inquiries relative to the size of the universe much deeper into space, and contribute further to the problem of other galaxies. 

Curtis, on the other hand, was more certain:

I hold, therefore, to the belief that the galaxy is probably not more than 30,000 light-years in diameter; that the spirals are not intra-galactic objects but island universes, like our own galaxy, and that the spirals, as external galaxies, indicate to us a greater universe into which we may penetrate to distances of ten million to a hundred million light-years.

If you’re interested in the state of observational astronomy 100 years ago, you should read the debate transcript.[1] The arguments of both astronomers are substantially technical, reflecting the science of the day. As Virginia Trimble noted in an article[2] written to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Great Debate, “the two men’s [later] reactions to Hubble’s discovery of Cepheids in the Andromeda make clear that both felt the issue of existence of external galaxies (on which Curtis had been more nearly correct) was of greater long-term importance than the size of the Milky Way (on which Shapley had been more nearly correct).”

In 1924, Hubble estimated the distance to the Andromeda nebula to be 930,000 light years. Although short of the modern day distance of 2,500,000 light years (because of unappreciated dust extinction), this measurement proved that the spiral nebulas were indeed external “island universes,” something that was first proposed by Thomas Wright in 1750 and shortly thereafter independently by Immanuel Kant. In his excellent 1995 biography Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae, Gale Christianson reports that Hubble described his results in a letter on Aug. 25, 1924 to Shapley. Christianson suggests that word-of-mouth transmission of the details among the astronomers at Mt. Wilson then spread throughout the astronomy community. Hubble’s discovery seems to have first been presented to the public not in a scientific paper, or a report about one, but in a story in the New York Times on November 23, 1924. The Times had published brief articles on the island universe controversy since the early 1920’s. Here’s the November 23rd Times story as published (available on the Times’ on-line archive), which appears to be an almost verbatim transcription of a press release, suggesting that the Carnegie Institution, owner of Mt. Wilson, had a strong desire to see the information before the public and not have it be confined to astronomic academia:


Dr. Hubble Confirms View That They Are “Island Universes” Similar to Our Own

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22—Confirmation of the view that the spiral nebulae, which appear in the heavens as whirling clouds, are in reality distant stellar systems, or “island universes,” has been obtained by Dr. Edwin Hubble of the Carnegie Institution’s Mount Wilson observatory, through investigations carefully carried out with the observatory’s powerful telescopes.

The number of spiral nebulae, the observatory officials have reported to the institution, is very great, amounting to hundreds of thousands, and their apparent sizes range from small objects, almost star-like in character, to the great nebulae (sic) in Andromeda, which extends across an angle some 3 degrees in the heavens, about six times the diameter of the full moon.

The investigations of Dr. Hubble were made photographically with the 60-inch and 100-inch reflectors of the Mount Wilson observatory,” the report said, “the extreme faintness of the stars under examination making necessary the use of these great telescopes. The resolving power of these instruments breaks up the outer portions of the nebulae into swarms of stars, which may be studied individually and compared with those in our own system.

From an investigation of the photographs thirty-six variable stars of the type referred to, known as Cepheid variables, were discovered in the two spirals, Andromeda and No. 33, of Messier’s great catalogue of nebulae. The study of the periods of these stars and the application of the relationship between length of period and intrinsic brightness at once provided the means of determining the distances of these objects.

The results are striking in their confirmation of the view that these spiral nebulae are distant stellar systems. They are found to be about ten times as far away as the small Magellanic cloud or at a distance of the order of 1,000,000 light years. This means that light traveling at the rate of 186,000 miles a second has required a million years to reach us from these nebulae and that we are observing them by light which left them in the Pliocene ages upon the earth.

With a knowledge of the distances of these nebulae we find for their diameters 45,000 light years for the Andromeda nebulae (sic) and 15,000 light years for Messier 33. These quantities, as well as the masses and densities of the systems, are quite comparable with the corresponding values for our local system of stars.

In fact, Hubble had used more than just M31 and M33. He also looked at NGC 6822 (Barnard’s Galaxy in Sagittarius), M81 and M101, commenting in his letter to Shapley that he had some trouble picking out Cepheids in the latter two galaxies.

In late December Hubble received an invitation to present a paper at the January 1925 joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The paper was given on Jan. 1, 1925, and for it he received a $500 prize.

It’s interesting that Hubble concluded that there were “hundreds of thousands” of galaxies, some of which appeared “star-like.” He could not have resolved the Cepheids in those galaxies (and there were certainly not that many galaxies catalogued at that time), so he obviously extrapolated from their brightness and the fact that they were not exactly star-like. It was an astute and essentially correct conclusion, although we now know that it vastly underestimated the number of galaxies in the universe

It would be difficult to detect or measure Cepheid variables in fainter, more distant galaxies even with telescopes of 60 and 100 inch apertures, so Hubble made the further assumption that galaxies in clusters were relatively similar and that he could simply compare their total brightness to estimate their relative distance, and then extrapolate to absolute distances with Cepheids in Andromeda and M33 serving as galactic “standard candles.”

Over the next few years, Hubble was able to capture spectra and measure the brightness of 22 “extragalactic nebulae” and the two Magellanic Clouds. In his paper “A Relation Between Distance And Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae,”[3] Hubble wrote

…where considerable numbers are involved, and especially in the various clusters of nebulae, mean apparent luminosities of the nebulae themselves offer reliable estimates of the mean distances.

Hubble’s 1929 velocity-distance diagram. Two curves are shown, based on whether galaxies were plotted individually or in groups

The cautious Hubble noted that

New data to be expected in the near future may modify the significance of the present investigation or, if confirmatory, will lead to a solution having many times the weight. For this reason it is thought premature to discuss in detail the obvious consequences of the present results.

That the spectral red shifts were due to the expansion of the universe, which we now accept as a basic tenet of cosmology, was not immediately evident at the time. Einstein’s General Relativity was on everyone’s mind. The question of whether space had a curvature, of great interest to astronomers and physicists studying general relativity, was potentially addressed by this work. Perhaps the red shifts had a relativistic basis, an explanation specifically presented by Hubble:

The outstanding feature, however, is the possibility that the velocity-distance relation may represent the de Sitter effect, and hence that numerical data may be introduced into discussions of the general curvature of space. In the de Sitter cosmology, displacements of the spectra arise from two sources, an apparent slowing down of atomic vibrations and a general tendency of material particles to scatter.

In a letter to Shapley shortly after the paper was published, Hubble acknowledged that he wanted to hold up publication to obtain more data but was worried that he would be beaten to priority by other astronomers working on the same problem.

Hubble submitted his paper to PNAS in January 1929 and it was published in the March issue. Nothing was mentioned about this subject in the Times until a report in June about a paper presented by Milton Humason (Hubble’s assistant) and Francis Pease (designer of the 100-inch telescope at Mt. Wilson) at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Berkeley. They presented the “greatest known” velocities for 3 “nebulae,” determined from red shifts. (“Closed Universe Data Read in New Sky Test,” June 22, 1929, p. 19)

The significance of the work is thought to lie in the curious relation that where bodies are moving away from the earth, the more distant they are the faster they appear to be moving…. The theory is that velocities are illusory and the displacements seen in the spectrum are not actual motions but distortions in light waves…due to a curvature of space, predicted by Einstein…. Thus it is thought, further study may show that the universe is closed, exhibiting a finite volume with no boundaries, just as the surface of the earth is closed in two dimensions.

Three days later the Times reported comments by Shapely and Eddington explaining the belief that the red shifts were gravitational and not due to actual recession of the nebulae (“Speeds of Nebulae Aid Einstein Belief,” June 25, 1929, p. 11):

The measured velocity is probably not a measure of actual motion but more likely a measure of crumpling space, a relativity effect” in the option of Dr. Harlow Shapley. “One of the deductions from the general theory of relativity is that the space-time universe is finite but unbounded and that very distant objects should show a spurious velocity of recession.”

Eddington agrees. “In such a space, light which has traveled an appreciable part of the way around the world is slowed down in its vibrations, with the result that all spectral lines are displaced toward the red. Ordinarily we interpret such a red displacement as signifying receding velocity in the light of sight.”

This, as we know now, is an incorrect explanation, but it shows how focused everyone was on the geometric implications of general relativity. It took a bit of time for astronomers to accept that the universe was actually expanding, so fixated were they on the idea of an eternal, static cosmos.

I could find only one mention of Hubble’s name in the Times in 1929, and that was in relation to a peculiar article on May 12 entitled “The Size of the Universe.”

Dr. Ludwik Silberstein announced before the American Physical Society that the radius of space is but a paltry five million light years, smaller than most Einsteinians insist. Dr. Hubble of Mount Wilson and Professor Shapley of Harvard estimate that some of them [faint nebulae] are 140 million light years distant.

Silberstein, a Polish physicist, was well-known in his day and was an early enthusiast for relativity, but he differed with Einstein on important details of the theory and being wrong about those he is now forgotten. It turns out there were a large number of physicists in the 1920’s who tried to counter Einstein’s theory with legitimate scientific arguments (not the anti-Semitic “Jewish science” arguments of Lenard and others) in spite of the two solid pieces of evidence for it at the time: the precession of Mercury’s orbit and the deflection of starlight by the eclipsed sun (“Einstein’s Theories Raked By Americans,” Oct. 26, 1929, p. 19).

L-R: Edwin Hubble, Milton Humason, Harlow Shapley, Arthur Eddington

There are quite a few articles in the Times about Shapley, who was the head of the Harvard Observatory and seemingly the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his time. He was apparently asked by reporters to comment about every new event or discovery in astronomy. By 1929 he seems to have completely shed any negative connotations that might have resulted from being wrong about the nature of spiral nebulas at the Great Debate. I suspect he had a good publicity agent.

He wasn’t the only scientist in the public eye, and of course the world-famous Albert Einstein was news wherever he went. The Times was full of reportage about the great man. It seemed whenever Einstein spoke, a newspaper story appeared. There was a semi-charming story on Dec. 31, 1930 relating the imminent arrival of Einstein to Pasadena for a two-month stay.


Great stellar systems, like the Milky Way, rushing away from the earth at 7,300 miles a second, offer a problem to Dr. Albert Einstein.

Southern California scientists have this problem ready for the German author of the principle of relativity, who will reach Pasadena tomorrow.

They likewise have a problem for his wife, Frau Elsa Einstein. Frau Einstein will be asked to decide what sort of California bungalow she likes best to house her and her husband here.

This article includes a lengthy quote from Hubble about the data that led to his claim about the expansion of the universe. Einstein’s was interested in it because it challenged his conception of a stable universe, maintained that way with the cosmological constant Λ that opposed gravitational contraction due to the mass of all the matter in the universe.

Photo on the wall inside the 150-foot solar telescope at Mt. Wilson showing Einstein visiting on January 29, 1931 (photo by the author, April 2016).

Einstein was an irresistible subject for the Times. “Einstein Explores Far Away Nebulae” (January 24, 1931, p. 5), “Einstein Drops Idea of ‘Closed’ Universe (Feb. 5, 1931, front page), “Einstein Tells of Advance in His Field Theory In Unifying Gravity and Electromagnetics (June 10, 1931, front page), “Einstein Explains Ideas on Universe” (June 27, 1932, p. 14), even “Einstein Now Enrolled in Ranks of Whistlers” (Oct. 2, 1931, p. 22)[4]. The Times reported “Einstein Bids Adieu to Scientist Hosts” (Feb. 28, 1931, p. 12), discussing the great man’s return to Berlin after some sightseeing at the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest in Arizona. We never did learn about the bungalow, but we did find out that the couple had been bedeviled by the press:

Frau Elsa Einstein intimated some relief in taking leave of the newspaper men, of whom, she said, so many knew so little about the processes of Professor Einstein’s thoughts…. As the train pulled out, Frau Elsa, voicing sentiments which the professor himself in his reticence would not utter, did bid one hearty goodbye. That was to the photographers. The farewell was tinged, it appeared, with no little pleasure so far as the scientist and his wife were concerned.

There is little about Hubble in 1930, but in starting with the Dec. 31, 1930 article his name appears more frequently. By late 1931, Hubble was the featured astronomer in relevant Times stories, with articles on 3 consecutive days (Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 1931) reporting on a lecture series he gave at Princeton. This followed the publication, with Milton Humason, of “The Velocity-Distance Relation Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae” in the July 1931 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.[5] This paper extended his 1929 observations to much fainter galaxies over distances of 30 megaparsecs and showed an even more convincing correlation between recession velocity and distance than the 1929 paper.

The distance-recession velocity graph from Hubble & Humason’s 1931 paper

Hubble realized that by assuming that galaxies are more or less the same, a given galaxy’s brightness would be proportional to its distance.

When no stars can be seen, a new criterion is required, necessarily calibrated by the data for the sample collection. This is furnished by the absolute luminosities of the nebulae themselves, which exhibit a restricted range about a well-defined most frequent value. The criterion is statistical, but when it is once calibrated, its application appears to be quite general.

From that time forward, Hubble was credited with discovering the expansion of the universe, although a recollection written in 2011 by Canadian astronomer Sidney van den Bergh points out that Hubble was not the only person working on this problem.[6] Milton Humason himself showed van den Bergh how to use the 48” Schmidt telescope at Mt. Palomar (now known as the Oschin-Schmidt) on the very night before Humason formally retired in 1965. Van den Bergh participated in a new version the Great Debate, also entitled “The Scale of the Universe,” held on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Shapley-Curtis. Van den Bergh argued with Gustav A. Tammann about the value of the Hubble Constant[7], then as now a controversial measurement. Van den Bergh provides the following time-line for work on the expansion of the universe, seeking to debunk what he called “the myth that Hubble discovered the velocity-distance relation.”

1922       From radial velocities of only 29 spirals Wirtz concludes that either the nearest or the most massive galaxies have the smallest redshifts.[8]

1924       Using observations of 42 galaxies Wirtz (1924) concludes "that there remains no doubt that the positive radial velocities of spiral nebulae grow quite significantly with increasing distance."

1925       Lundmark notes that the redshifts of small (presumably distant) spiral galaxies are larger than those of larger nearby ones.

1927       Lemaître derives the expansion rate of the Universe and explains its expansion in terms of the General Theory of Relativity.

1929       Hubble repeats Lemaître’s work [sic, this is probably an error and van den Bergh meant Lundmark] with essentially the same data and obtains similar results.

1930       de Sitter re-discusses mostly the same data more thoroughly and again finds the same result.

1931       Hubble & Humason obtain 40 new radial velocities which extend the determination of redshifts to the Leo cluster at a redshift of 19600 km/s. This places the reality of a linear velocity-distance relationship for galaxies beyond reasonable doubt

Van den Bergh notes that Hubble read German and would have undoubtedly seen Wirtz’s articles. He also pointed out that Hubble and Lundmark were at odds because Hubble accused Lundmark of stealing his schema for galactic morphology, which is still used today. Apparently Hubble also picked a fight with de Sitter for not acknowledging Hubble’s priority, this perhaps at the instigation of Hubble’s wife Grace. He also reports that Lemaître claimed priority in a note written in 1950 about his 1927 paper. But “history is written by the victors,” or as it was said in John Ford’s film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ultimately, Hubble was right when he decided not to wait to publish. Had he done so, we might be talking about the Wirtz Constant, the deSitter Constant, the Lundmark Constant or even the Lemaître Constant, and in that case we’d be constantly having to fish through Windows Character Map to find the “i” with the circumflex on it whenever we wanted to write about it!

Ruth Page as Miss Expanding Universe, NY Public Library Jerome Robbins Dance Collection

Hubble’s Princeton lectures in the fall of 1931 were clearly the stimulus for Isamu Noguchi’s interest in cosmic expansion. Noguchi, living much of the time in New York in the early 1930’s, had studied in Paris in 1927 with the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Brancusi’s spare and reductionist style led to Noguchi’s interest in abstracting the human body. He suggested a dance related to the new astronomical findings to ballerina and choreographer (and Noguchi’s attempted but unsuccessful paramour) Ruth Page (1899-1991). Page had a wide range of creative pursuits, performing and choreographing both classical ballet and modern dance. For Expanding Universe Noguchi encased Page in a dark blue wool sack dress, very much like some of his later costumes for Martha Graham. His conception was that the universe was expanding from an amorphous mass, and so the dancer ought to appear rather amorphous. The dance was premiered on November 2, 1932 in Fargo, North Dakota (!). It was apparently later merged into a dance called “Variations on Euclid” and a silent film of the opening few minutes of a 1938 stage performance of this work is available on YouTube. An excerpt from Expanding Universe was given at the Isamu Noguchi Museum in June 2018, the first time it had been performed in more than half a century.

Page used music by little-known composer Robert Ben-Levi Wolf for the dance. I suppose that the proper music for Expanding Universe would be the baryon acoustic oscillations that were created after the Big Bang and still resonate through the cosmos, but although they are actual sound waves, they are more than 50 octaves below the limit of human hearing. And of course they were unknown at the time Expanding Universe was created.

Isamu Noguchi, Ruth Page

Noguchi himself seems to have had only a tangential interest in astronomy. He was, however, particularly fascinated by the famous Jantar Mantar observatory in India and took many photographs of the site on visits there between 1949 and 1960. The observatory’s architecture and instruments (all non-telescopic) inspired many of his subsequent sculptures and installations. His large work Skygate in Honolulu is designed to cast a perfect circular shadow on its base twice a year when the sun is directly overhead at noon, and appears to be his only astronomically functional work.

The whole idea of a sculpture that looks like a flying squirrel and is entitled Miss Expanding Universe is obviously peculiar. Astronomy and dance don’t seem to have much in common, although there’s nothing that precludes someone from having an interest in both, as my wife and I do. But there aren’t any ballets that I know of that explicitly concern themselves with astronomical objects or events. When Mars or Venus appear in ballets, they are mythological figures, not celestial bodies. The Moon and the Sun are found on the backdrops of many ballet sets, but no choreographer I can recall has sent their dancers to other planets. Only Ruth Page and Isamu Noguchi seem to have taken up the challenge of making a dance that expresses a challenging astronomical idea. Now one wonders if someone will be enthused and creative enough to choreograph a dance about black holes or gravitational waves! n

[2] Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 107: 1133-1144, 1995 December, available at https://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/debate20.html

[3] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 1929; 15: 168-173, available at http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/15/3/168.full.pdf

[4] Here’s the entire article about Einstein’s whistling. “Asserting that nearly every genius whistles and that he has heard Dr. Albert Einstein whistle, Augustus Lukeman, sculptor of New York and Stockbridge, Mass. stopped off in New York yesterday long enough to defend whistling as the ally of art and to deny the contentions concerning it of Dr. Charles Gray Shaw, New York University Professor of Philosophy. On Monday, Dr. Shaw declared that whistlers were usually morons, but on Wednesday he relented, saying that he objected to ‘puckering of the lips’ by whistlers, but that ‘whistling with the throat is often done by intelligent people.’ Pooh-poohing such delicate distinctions, Mr. Lukeman said it made no difference to him how a man whistled, as long as he did. Mr. Lukeman said he had heard Dr. Einstein whistle melodiously on his last trip here, had read only yesterday that Mussolini whistled, and had no doubt that Mr. Hoover and Mr. Edison did.” No byline is given.

[5] Astrophysical Journal 1931; 74:43-80, available at http://www.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1931ApJ....74...43H

[8] Vesto Slipher of Lowell Observatory discovered galactic red shift in 1912, and was able to measure the speed of galactic rotation by comparing the spectra of light from either side of a galaxy. From the speed of rotation, one could estimate a galaxy’s mass, which we now know includes dark matter.


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