Vera Rubin: A quest to understand the Universe

April 25th was the International Astronomy Day. For this occasion, DiscovHER would like to honor Prof. Vera Rubin, one of the world’s most eminent astronomers and a woman who many believe should have already won the Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking discoveries.

If a single adjective could describe Professor Rubin, it would be independent. It’s a word she uses often when asked about meeting the challenges of a woman entering science back in the late 1940s. Even in grade school and high school, her sense of independence, of knowing exactly what she wanted to do, enabled her to follow her passion for what were traditionally considered “boys’ subjects.”


Such individuality and non-conformity would serve her well all of her life: Her fist discoveries regarding the velocities of celestial bodies and their implications for proving the existence of dark matter were believed by, as she puts it, “almost no one.” Her ideas would not gain acceptance until many years later, but she now has the satisfaction of being nicknamed the “Doyenne of Dark Matter.” 


“Vera, Don’t Spend All Night with Your Head Out the Window” 


Professor Rubin’s fascination for the heavens began at age 10, when her family moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. The window in her new bedroom had a marvelous view of the night skies and she was mesmerized. So much so that her otherwise supportive parents worried that she wasn’t getting enough sleep.


Like most families of the era, hers was feeling the effects of the Great Depression. Although her father was an electrical engineer, money was still scarce. Books about astronomy could be borrowed from the library for free, but a telescope was out of the question. The resourceful young Vera Cooper, as she was known then, wasn’t going to let a lack of funds prevent her from learning more about the stars. She ordered a lens, placed it a cardboard tube, did some adjusting and, with her father’s help, made her own telescope. A stellar career was launched. 


Female Role Models


During her teenage years, Vera Cooper learned that at least one woman had gone down in history as a respected astronomer. Maria Mitchell had been a renowned professor of astronomy at Vassar College in the 19th century. Naturally, Vassar was where Vera decided she wanted to study, but it was a prestigious and expensive institution that her family could not afford. So, just as naturally, the determined young Vera won a scholarship. Describing her years at Vassar, then a women’s college, Professor Rubin speaks of the intellectual stimulation, the opportunity to get to know people from other backgrounds and the encouragement for women to achieve. Her graduate studies, in male-dominated universities in male-dominated fields, would be another matter.


Wife, Mother, Scientist


Without even as much as a reply from Princeton University, which did not accept women until 1975, Vera applied to Cornell University. Her fiancé, Bob Rubin, was studying physical chemistry at Cornell and she was accepted into a master’s program. Along with the challenge of being a woman in science, Vera Rubin was now a wife and would soon be a mother, all the while studying for her degree… and making the controversial assertions about the cosmos that would be a hallmark of her career.


Her family returned to Washington, DC and she began to study for her doctorate at Georgetown University. Now the mother of four, her husband worked during the day and she took her classes at night. Professor Rubin is quick to give credit to her supportive husband, who ate his dinner in the car while driving her to school, and her parents, who took care of her children every evening. She characterizes herself as “exhausted” during this period of her life, but was so fascinated by her field that she “couldn’t not do astronomy.” Motherhood, it must be said, was just as important to her. In her opinion, watching a child develop is the only thing as exciting as astronomy, and she has often stated that her greatest accomplishment is her four children, all of whom hold doctorate degrees. 


Doing It Her Way 


Professor Rubin had already reported certain observations that no one agreed with, but while teaching at Georgetown she presented a paper that topped them all. Scientists had long supposed that objects in a galaxy would revolve more slowly the further they were from the galaxy’s center. Professor Rubin’s observations did not bear this out: the objects revolved at the same speed. If that were the case, galaxies would “fly apart” and “break up”… but they were staying intact. Since her observed facts didn’t match the then accepted theory, she had to be wrong. And her equipment was blamed.


Several years later she moved to the Carnegie Institute of Washington, known for its high-performance instruments and she observed the same phenomena. Objects in galaxies were revolving at the same speed, but the galaxies were not exploding. The only explanation could be a form of matter that did not behave in the expected way, a form of matter that had more mass and sufficient gravitational pull to keep the objects in their orbits. Earlier scientists had posited the existence of dark matter, but had no proof for their theories. Vera Rubin had found the proof. She was much harder to ignore but many astronomers still had trouble believing that the older theories were no longer tenable.


Vera Rubin’s initially disputed work eventually came to be regarded as a world-shaking discovery. Interestingly, as befits a woman who never follows the crowd, she is among a very small minority of scientists who do not believe that her observations provide evidence of black holes. She herself thinks that her discoveries offer at least partial proof to a theory known as MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics). Professor Rubin got to do things her own way despite everyone else’s protests, a path she advises everyone to take. In a recent speech to the graduates of American University, the 86-year-old scientist gave her audience a bit of advice that is pure, plain-speaking Vera Rubin: 


If you really have something you want to do and you really think that it’s worth doing, you should go ahead and do it. You should not let people, especially older people, tell you all the reasons you should not be doing it.
L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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