Vera Rubin, pioneering astrophysicist and women’s advocate, dies at 88

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Dec 28, 2016

Vera Rubin, a pioneering astrophysicist and fierce breaker of glass ceilings, passed away on Sunday. She was 88 years old. 

Rubin is perhaps best remembered as the scientist who proved the existence of dark matter, the material that makes up 90% of the universe. That discovery revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. But while physics will remember her for her contributions to the study of space, history will also remember her as a strong and steadfast advocate for women in STEM.

Rubin was of a singular interest, even as a child. According to a profile from the American Museum of Natural History, she was fascinated with the stars from age 10. Her father even built her a telescope to support his daughter’s pursuits. 

She was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar in 1948, going on to receive a graduate degree from Cornell (Princeton wouldn’t allow women into their astronomy program), and a Ph.D. from Georgetown, where she taught for several years following.

In the 1960s, Rubin became the first woman to observe at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. According to a profile on CNN, when the men who ran the place said they did not have a ladies room available, Rubin used a piece of paper to give the men’s room sign a skirt, and proclaimed, “Look, now you have a ladies room.”

Rubin continued advocating for women in the sciences throughout her career. When asked by a colleague to advertise a new astronomy program, Rubin refused, stating that she would never apply to a program which featured no women on its faculty.

Perhaps the simplest depiction of Rubin’s philosophy can be summed up in her own words.

"I live and work with three basic assumptions," Rubin once wrote.

"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 often given to men than to women."

In the mid-1960s, Rubin joined the faculty of the Carnegie Institution of Science, where she worked alongside Kent Ford. During their work, Rubin and Ford discovered that stars and gasses inside galaxies moved at the same speed, regardless of how close they were to the galaxy’s center (or how much visible matter was around). This was an unexpected discovery since physicists had assumed up to this point that matter near the densely packed center of a galaxy would orbit at a faster rate than the more widely dispersed matter at the edges. This observation led to the conclusion that there must be other matter inside galaxies that was invisible to the naked eye, or, as Rubin put it, “what you see in a spiral galaxy is not what you get.”

Years later, Rubin’s work, which built on an earlier conclusion from the 1930s - along with that from other physicists - would lead to the confirmation that there is, in fact, an unseen substance known as dark matter filling in the space between stars. The exact makeup of said dark matter remains one of the great mysteries plaguing astronomers today.

Despite the revolutionary nature of her discovery and the impact her work has had on several scientific fields, Rubin never received a Nobel Prize for that work. She did receive several other accolades, including the National Medal of Science and the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal.

While friends of Rubin have been quick to point out that she was never in it to win awards, that the work was enough, some of her fellow physicists have expressed their frustration at the lack of recognition. Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize for Physics: Maria Goeppert Meyer in 1963, and Marie Curie in 1903.

The role of women in science, like in many other fields, has been diminished throughout history. Women have faced barriers in their attempts to enter these fields, and roadblocks along their path once they do. Those struggles persist to this day but were much more prominent in the time that Rubin made her discoveries. We’re still learning about the contributions of women to advancements, even those as widely publicized as the space program (see the new movie Hidden Figures for prime examples).

CNN’s obituary for Rubin ended on a note all-too-familiar for women in the sciences, pointing out that “it's important to remember that in science, each person's achievements are built on the backs of those who came before.”

Rubin wasn’t the first person to suggest the existence of dark matter, but she was the one to take that line of inquiry to the finish line. She stood in the face of sexism and doubt and forced the scientific community to believe in something they could not see. That’s important to remember.