R.I.P. Dr. Vera Rubin

The Woman Who Found Dark Matter

vera rubin
Vera Rubin

As I write this, reports are spreading rapidly through the astronomy community of the death of Dr. Vera Rubin on December 25, 2016. If you don’t know who she was, or what she worked on, come sit by me and let me tell you a story about this lady.

Remembering Vera Rubin

It was at one of the first meetings of the American Astronomical Society I attended. I was a graduate student and giving a talk about outreach and amateur astronomy. I was scared to death because, hey, it was me, a lowly student giving a talk to all these exalted astronomers. A woman sat in the front row and smiled at me as I shuffled the papers on the podium. The room filled and then the session chair gave me the signal that my 10 minutes had started. I plunged into my talk.

At the end, a few people asked questions, everyone clapped politely, and the next person stepped up to the podium. I fled the room to catch my breath. The woman followed me out and asked if I’d like to get a cup of coffee. At the same moment my advisor came out and said, “Oh, I see you’ve met Vera Rubin”, and he proceeded to introduce me to her before being collared by someone else for a chat. Dr. Rubin and I went to get coffee, and for the next 30 minutes or so she asked me all about my work and what I hoped to do when I graduated. It was a wonderful experience.

Over the years we met here and there, and I learned more about her work with galaxy rotation studies and the existence of dark matter. I found it fascinating, as so many people do, and followed her research with interest. When I was asked to write a book about astronomy, one of the directions I got from the editors was to include some bios of “seminal” astronomers. Dr. Rubin was one of those I chose. In retrospect, I wish could have done a book on her work instead of simply a chapter.

In the Hall of Giants

I know that Vera Rubin didn’t work in a vacuum on dark matter — that, like Newton and every other astronomer has done — she stood on the shoulders of giants. Her work forged a new path in understanding dark matter and its affect on the universe. Now, she is a giant in her own right. Now, others will stand on her shoulders. Her insights and drive to understand the difficult “galaxy rotation problem” led directly to the theory of dark matter, and more recently to the confirming observations of its existence. It was a monumental achievement.

For her work, Dr. Rubin should have received a Nobel Prize. That didn’t happen and the Nobel physics committee should be thinking hard about why she was overlooked.  She has been honored with many other prizes and awards for her insights, and she will be long remembered for her seminal contributions to astronomy.

RIP Dr. Vera Rubin, and deepest condolences to her extended family.

6 Comments

  1. Frank Gibson

    I have had a fascination with cosmology since an early age and I had definitely heard of Vera Rubin. Am I not correct in believing that her original work concerning the mismatch between galactic rotation periods and apparent mass was apparently largely ignored at its first presentation (1960s I think) because she had made a small calculation error in her uncertainty estimations. The real reason for it not being seriously was her gender and possible because she was a Jew. I am an almost retired teacher of physics (I suspect teachers of physics never really retire because they never stop learning) and I always used her as an example of how bigotry can get in the way of real science.

  2. C.C. Petersen

    Frank, I’ve not read anything in detail about her religious identity being an issue. There are many people of many traditions working in astronomy. Her gender was a bigger issue, particularly early in her career. Princeton missed out on having a distinguished alum in her, simply because they didn’t want women in their programs. She persevered and went on to bigger and better things, and is a role model for women in STEM.

  3. Waleligne Cherinet

    The path to enlightenment may be slow, narrow and dark. But it is the brave ones, that step ahead and light the hallways for the rest, that help to make the biggest strides.

  4. Carmen Ceder

    “For her work, Dr. Rubin should have received a Nobel Prize. That didn’t happen and the Nobel physics committee should be thinking hard about why she was overlooked. She has been honored with many other prizes and awards for her insights, and she will be long remembered for her seminal contributions to astronomy.”

    The Nobel Committee has got a tremendous lot of thinking to do as far as women are concerned. Even their own Swedish women like Astrid Lindgren who is the world’s most read Author of Children’s Books, who also like Rubin has received prizes and awards from all over the Globe! The reason for not getting the Nobel: Literatur for Children not Adults!
    The real Reason: she is just another woman.

  5. C.C. Petersen

    I also see a lot of misogynist-leaning thinking in the current (and past) efforts to belittle Dr. Rubin’s accomplishments with statements such as “she didn’t really discover anything”, etc. Her work laid important foundations in thinking about dark matter, foundations that wouldn’t exist without her and her team’s observations. Lesser people have received the Nobel for less accomplishment.

  6. The Poet Larryeate™

    So happy to hear your personal encounter story, C.C.! Very inspiring. Dr. Rubin is a great, brave, brilliant woman! Witty and cordial in the face of adversity. I did not know she had passed, until I listened to the re-make of Cosmos and looked her u, happened to see your post here. I am so impressed with ALL our “Sisters of the Stars” and your perseverance in a sex-biased world. It is sad that scientists can also be so biased, and as a man (retired aerospace & biomedical engineer, career champion in technical sales and tech writer for cardiac therapies, and lyricist) I have more respect for women in science and technology, or whatever avocation they love. Sad there have been such biases in the past. I hope and pray it is less so now. All those who push the horizon in science seem to have resistance, and it has been especially tough for women. She is in great company. Bravissima to you all!!!

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