Dr. Vera Rubin, the groundbreaking astrophysicist who discovered evidence of dark matter, has died at age 88. In 1974, Rubin discovered that the stars at the edge of galaxies moved faster than expected. Gravity calculations using only visible matter in galaxies showed that the outer stars should have been moving more slowly.
To reconcile her observations with Newton’s law of universal gravitation, scientists proposed there was matter we cannot see. In other words, she discovered the existence of dark matter. She wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, but she was the first to spend years painstakingly collecting the data to support the theory.
Overall, 23 percent of the mass and energy in the universe is dark matter, while dark energy is thought to contribute 73 percent. This leaves only about 4 percent of the universe composed of regular matter, such as stars, planets, and us.
Vera Rubin’s interest in astronomy began as a young girl and grew with the involvement of her father, who helped her build a telescope and took her to meetings of amateur astronomers.
She pursued her interest and was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar in 1948. She was rejected by Princeton University’s astronomy program because it didn’t accept women at the time. She eventually studied at Cornell and later Georgetown, where she earned her Ph.D. in physics in 1954. She moved on to work at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, a nonprofit scientific research center.
Please watch this video that explains dark matter and dark energy:
Men dominated the field of astronomy early in Rubin’s career; however, she set out to change their attitudes by becoming a fierce advocate for women in the sciences. In the mid-1960s, she was granted access to San Diego’s prestigious Palomar Observatory, an old boys club so infamous that astronomers called it “the monastery.”
However, when Rubin arrived, she was informed that there was no restroom for women. Not deterred, she went to her office, cut out a paper image of a skirt, taped it on the door of the men’s restroom, and stated:
“There you go, now you have a women’s restroom.”
Her efforts to promote more women in the field of science did not end at the Palomar Observatory. She was part of a small group of female scientists and scholars who pressured Washington’s exclusive Cosmos Club to admit women. She criticized the National Academy of Sciences for its dearth of female members. She also met with politicians to discuss the need to create more opportunities in science education for girls.
Rubin’s scientific achievements earned her numerous awards and honors, including a National Medal of Science presented by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She also became the second female astronomer to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. But she was never awarded a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking research in dark matter.
Many in the scientific community saw the oversight as a sign of the Nobel Committee’s gender bias, as only two women have won the award for physics, and none in the past 50 years. In the preface of her book entitled Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, Rubin wrote:
“Like Columbus, perhaps like the Vikings, we have peered into a new world and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still more mysteries of the universe remain hidden. Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way.”
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