Vera Rubin - The Mother of Dark Matter

Vera Rubin, shown operating the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory with Kent Ford's spectrograph attached. Image credit NOAO/AURA/NSF. Via Forbes.

Vera Rubin, shown operating the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory with Kent Ford's spectrograph attached. Image credit NOAO/AURA/NSF. Via Forbes.

Vera Rubin was born Vera Florence Cooper on July 23, 1928 in Philadelphia, PA. She became captivated with stars and space at a young age as she watched them from her bedroom window. Her father, an electrical engineer, would help her build her first telescope.

Before attending Vassar College, her struggle with a male dominated environment began. In high school, one of her teachers told her that she would make a fine career women as long as she “stayed away from science”. In 1948, she graduated from Vassar as the sole astronomer in her class. Afterwards, she had hoped to get her Ph.D. from Princeton, but the program for astrophysics declined her course catalog because they did not admit women at that time. Instead, she earned a master’s degree from Cornell in 1951. Later, she and her husband ended up moving to Washington where she enrolled in Georgetown University. There, while raising her children, she would earn her Ph.D. In the midst of all of this, she continued to undergo criticism and humiliation just because she was a woman. She recalled one time being asked to meet with known astrophysicist George Gamow. Her excitement was decimated as she learned they could only meet in the lobby because women were not allowed in the upstairs offices. In the 60’s, Rubin became the first female to do observations at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. But this did not come so easily. The men (or should I say boys) working at the observatory told her that the real issue was that they didn’t have a women’s restroom. And that is totally a good enough reason to quit your job and work somewhere they have a lady’s room, right? WRONG. COMPLETELY WRONG. So Vera went to her room, cut out a little piece of paper shaped like a girl’s skirt, and taped it to the men’s figure on the door to their bathroom. “Look, now you have a lady’s room”, she said. Rebecca Oppenheimer, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, remembers some helpful advice given to her by Dr. Rubin. Rubin said to her, “Don’t let anyone keep you down for silly reasons such as who you are. And don’t worry about prizes and fame. The real prize is finding something new out there”. And that is exactly what she did.

In the late 1960’s Rubin began working at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington where she and her team would be investigating how stars orbit their galactic centers. They looked to the Andromeda galaxy to study the movement of these stars. In the 1970-80’s, Rubin and her colleagues discovered that the cause for the motion of the stars was an invisible mass better known as dark matter. There had already been papers that suggested the existence of dark matter but it was Rubin’s work that confirmed it. It was her findings that gave birth to an entire subject of study in astronomy that is still baffling the great minds of today.

Dr. Rubin’s discoveries not only paved the way for future astronomers and physicists, but also for the women of science. She was a huge advocate for more women in STEM fields and is the reason women are allowed in certain science programs today like Princeton’s private social organization, the Cosmos Club. She served as a constant reminder to her colleagues that women were capable of anything. She received many awards throughout her lifetime for the incredible work that she did. Some of which included her 1993 National Medal of Science award, the highest scientific prize in the United States, given to her by President Bill Clinton. And the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical society, awarded to her in 1996, making her the first women to be honored in over 100 years (1828, Caroline Herschel).

Rubin passed away last Sunday at the age of 88. We will always remember her as a woman who revolutionized the world of science and our knowledge of the cosmos. In 2002, Carnegie honored Dr. Rubin and included some of the wisdom she had shared in the past that I think future/current female scientists should always remember:

“I live and work with three basic assumptions…
1. There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.
2. Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.
3. We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more given to men than to women.”
-Dr. Vera Rubin


Alyssa RamosscienceComment