Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Vera Rubin

Few pioneers made as much impact in their field as Dr. Vera Rubin, whose work with galaxies provided evidence for the existence of Dark Matter and revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

Rubin knew she was passionate about astronomy from a very young age. In 1938, Vera was a 10-year-old living in Washington D.C.

She watched the stars from her bedroom window, often neglected sleep to enjoy the sky and even made maps of meteor showers.

Rubin’s parents supported her passion (though they weren’t happy she didn’t sleep). They even helped her make her own telescope and took her to amateur astronomer meetings.

Inspired by Maria Mitchell, the first professor in astronomy at Vassar College, Rubin completed her Bachelor’s degree at Vassar in 1948 as the year’s only astronomy major.

For her graduate work, Rubin applied to Princeton, but the astronomy department did not accept women into their program until 1975.

She was accepted to Harvard, but informed them that, due to her marriage to Robert Rubin (a student at Cornell), she would be going to Cornell instead.

In a 1989 interview with Alan Lightman, Rubin recalled Donald Menzel (a Harvard astronomy professor) scribbling a note across her withdrawal letter saying, “Damn you women. Every time I get a good one ready, she goes off and gets married.”

Rubin completed her Master’s degree at Cornell in 1951, and finished her Ph.D. from Georgetown University in 1954, where she became a faculty member.

In 1965, Rubin began working at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C.

Working with a colleague, Kent Ford, Rubin began trying to find the total mass of nearby spiral galaxy M31, also known as the Andromeda Galaxy. To do this, the scientists looked at the orbital periods of stars inside M31 (how fast they are moving).

Like the planets in the Solar System, where outer planets move much slower than inner planets, Rubin expected stars far away from the center of M31 to be moving very slowly. But instead, Rubin found that the outer stars were moving just as fast stars in the center.

After confirming these results using dozens of other spiral galaxies, Rubin and her colleagues announced that there must be extra mass (Dark Matter) surrounding the galaxies. Originally proposed by Fritz Zwicky in 1933, Dark Matter has now become an accepted piece of the “Cosmic Pie”—largely due to Rubin’s observational evidence.

Rubin’s career earned her some of the highest honors available in astronomy today.

Throughout her career, Rubin advocated for women’s rights, including fighting for access to the Palomar Observatory in California and the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C. She advised the Pope to appoint more women to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (to which she herself was appointed in 1996 by Pope John Paul II).

In 1963, she became the first woman to (legally) observe at the Palomar Observatory, and in 1996 became the second woman in history to win the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal (the first being Caroline Herschel in 1828).

Rubin received the highest scientific award in America: The National Medal of Sciences, in 1993.

Many individuals think Rubin deserved a Nobel Prize for her discovery, and many have suggested that only sexism kept her from winning one (only two women in history have won the Nobel Prize in Physics).

A great mind was lost in 2016 when Rubin passed away last December, but a great legacy remains. Her work is a constant reminder of how much we still have to learn about our universe.

“Vera Rubin was a national treasure as an accomplished astronomer and a wonderful role model for young scientists,” said Carnegie President Matthew Scott after her passing. “We are very saddened by this loss.”

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12 – 1 pm.

2 Comments

  1. Barbarina Zwicky

    October 10, 2017 at 9:03 PM

    Fritz Zwicky pioneered the methodology of measuring the rotational speeds of galaxies, copied by Rubin. By her own admission, Rubin stated that she referred to Zwicky’s prior work and 1933 article. It is unfortunate, that Rubin herself advanced a campaign of self-promotion in regard to the discovery of Dark Matter. The Poughkeepsie Journal printed a front page correction to this falsehood, Vassar College corrected the title of Rubin’s lecture: “I Left Vassar and Found Dark Matter,” as did PBS Makers Women. It was a nuisance to constantly encounter Rubin and her relentless band of trumpeters, after I clearly told her that all public assertions and faux credit regarding my father’s work would be equally corrected in the public sphere.
    FRITZ ZWICKY – FATHER OF DARK MATTER
    History tells us that prophets are persecuted during their lifetime only to have their prescient theorem realized and acknowledged by the prevailing hierarchy decades or centuries later. The surety for the powers of intellectual obfuscation are twofold, literary malefic of the prophet or the assignment of credit posthumously to a masquerader of their time.
    The assignment of forced credit to Vera Rubin as the authentic discoverer of dark matter is not only errantly untrue but lamentable, in light of the hostile established guard advancing this fallacy, that was resistant to my father in his time, advancing literary assaults which became as common as grains of sand, but were equally unstable, holding no structure thus becoming dissolute with the tide and time. To ascribe credit to Vera Rubin as the discoverer of dark matter pollutes the real contribution of her life’s work, which is equally lamentable to the assigned forced credit displacing Fritz Zwicky. The advancement of bringing the gravitational phenomena of dark matter to light and into the modern consciousness of physicists worldwide would have regardless been unsealed from the echoes of my father’s original work in 1933.
    Fritz Zwicky: “I consequently engaged in the application of certain simple general principles of morphological research, and in particular the method of Directed Intuition that would allow me to predict and visualize the existence of as yet unknown cosmic objects and phenomena.”
    Fritz Zwicky’s eidolon was realized from the results of his observations published in “Die Rotverschiebung von extragalaktischen Nebeln”, Helv. Phys. Acta 6, 110-127 (1933). English translation Johannes Nicolai Meyling – Barbarina Exita Zwicky (2013).
    Fritz Zwicky discovered Dark Matter and coined, dunkle (kalte) Materie (cold dark matter) in his 1933 article referenced above. The Mass-Radial Acceleration Discrepancy by measuring the speeds of galaxies in the Coma Cluster originated with Fritz Zwicky, not Rubin, as using the more challenging methodology of the virial theorem, by relating the total average kinetic energy and the total average potential energy of the galaxies of the Coma Cluster. He advanced that the virial for a pair of orbiting masses is zero, and used the principle of superposition to craft the argument to a system of interacting mass points. Zwicky then used the position and velocity measurements to determine the mass of the galaxy cluster.

    • U-News

      October 10, 2017 at 9:15 PM

      Hi Barbarina,
      Our article does clarify that Fritz Zwicky proposed the idea for dark matter, but Vera Rubin made discoveries of the first convincing evidence of the existence of dark matter. Our article does not lay claim that Rubin came to the idea of dark matter on her own, she expanded on Zwicky’s idea of it.

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